State aid numbers spell good news for Abington
Selectmen have called a Special Town Meeting for October 19th in order to finalize town budget numbers and possibly take up other business that was pulled from the annual town meeting agenda in June.
The meeting will take place in the Abington Middle/High School auditorium and follow the same social distancing guidelines that governed the annual town meeting.
The full meeting agenda is still being developed. However, under Abington’s Town Charter any 100 residents can petition to have something added to a special town meeting warrant.
In June, Abington residents approved the town’s $55 million operating budget — as well as approximately $8 million in capital spending — for the fiscal year that started July 1. Building the town budget was tricky as the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker were still monitoring the economic impacts of the COVID-10 pandemic and had not yet told cities and towns how much money they would receive in state aid. The budget approved by Town Meeting ended up assuming Abigton would receive the same amount of state aid this fiscal year as it did last year — while leaving the door open for possible mid-year budget cuts.
The good news for Abington is that the state aid numbers announced by the Legislature and Baker Administration on July 30 will result in additional funding for the town.
Unrestricted General Government Aid, which can be used to fund any municipal program or service, will increase from $1.9 million to $2 million. School funding, which is called Chapter 70 money, will increase from $8.97 to $10.4 million.
The other piece of good news is that Abington ended the 2020 fiscal year in the black, despite the pandemic closing wide swaths of the economy for the last three months of the budgetary year. The town in June had voted to sock away slightly more than $1 million into it’s stabilization fund, which serves as the town’s savings account, to cover any budgetary shortfalls.
The exact size of the end-of-year surplus, which is called certified free cash, is still being finalized.
“Our local aid numbers came in slightly better than protected so obviously we want to appropriate that money,” Lambiase said. “Unfortunately, with our local receipt estimates we didn’t do as well on those, so there’s a bit of an offset.”
Specifically, the town has lowered its motor vehicle excise tax collection estimates to $2.39 million from $2.65 million, as fewer people are currently buying new cars. The town also assumes it will collect less in tax penalties and interest — dropping to $185,000 from $240,000 — as the result of guidance from the state to be more forgiving with those struggling to make ends meet.
“There are some hardships out there and we’re not looking to penalize people,” Lambiase said. “We just want to help them pay their taxes.”
So far, Abington is not yet seeing an increase in late or unpaid property tax bills, which provides the town the lion’s share of its revenue.
“Right now we’re ok. My concern going into the future is what happens once we get into the fall and winter and we’re forced to do all indoor stuff again, or if we have to go back to a predominately work from home culture,” Lambiase said. “If things like that happens, we may start seeing more of a problem.”
In addition, town meeting voters may be asked to allocate more money for trash collection. Town Meeting approved $1.37 million for trash collection this year, but based on current tonnage trends, it may not be enough. The amount of trash collected April, May, and June of this year is up 5 percent over the same time period last year. This is the final year of the town’s contract with it’s trash collector, Republic Services.
Lambiase and Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer are currently working out how to allocate the additional state funds. Abington’s Chapter 70 figure came in more than $1.4 million higher than expected, but both administrators agreed that the schools likely won’t see it’s budget increased by that amount. While Chapter 70 dollars must be spent on education, communities will sometimes offset increases in Chapter 70 funding by reducing the amount of money the schools receive through local property taxes.
Lambiase said some communities have a hard 60/40 budgetary split, meaning 60 percent of the town’s operating budget goes to the schools, and 40 percent goes to other municipal departments.
“Historically, (in Abington) the split fluctuates based on needs and abilities,” said Lambiase. “We have a very good working relationship with the schools here. It seems to be as good of a working relationship as I’ve ever seen.”
Schafer said it would be wrong to classify the additional funding as “extra” money, because the school department is now dealing with a number of additional COVID-19 related costs.
For example, new state mandates are limiting the number of students allowed on buses, meaning extra runs and extra charges for school departments. The school system, which is opening in a hybrid model, also needs to hire additional hall, lunch, and bathroom monitors to ensure students are following social distancing rules at all times.
“We’ve got some unanticipated employment costs,” Schafer said. “Our increased numbers under these circumstances are going to dictate the need for any additional funding.”
In order to achieve a balanced budget ahead of town meeting, the school department agreed to drop plans to hire eight new teachers for the coming school year, as well as leave three classroom aide positions unfilled.
It is not yet clear whether any of those positions will be funded during the special town meeting.
The agenda for the special town meeting may also include some street acceptances and zoning articles, which were initially proposed for the Annual Town Meeting, but withdrawn in order to keep the gathering as brief as possible.