Budget updates on special town meeting agenda

Local meal taxes are down as restaurants continue to struggle in a COVID-19 world. Expenses are up, particularly in Abington schools where additional buses are on the road, and more aides have been brought in to help monitor recess and lunch.

But overall, Abington’s finances remain solid, thanks to higher than expected state aid, a sizable pot of federal reimbursement money, and what town officials say was a conservative budgeting approach this spring. 

“Things are good,” said Finance Committee Chairman Matt Salah. “Clouds are on the horizon but we’re prepared for that.”

As expected, selectmen have scheduled a Special Town Meeting in order to update and finalize the town’s budget, which was put together before the state announced how much it would send municipalities in annual aid, as well as uncertainty around how long social distancing protocols would linger into the new fiscal year.

The Special Town Meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 19, for the Middle/High School auditorium. 

Abington ended up receiving more than $1 million in state aid than it budgeted for. 

“The local aid has come in. We just have to put that money somewhere,” said Acting Town Manager Scott Lambiase, who added that he is still finalizing exactly what funding allocations residents will be asked to approve at the Special Town Meeting.  

He did say that current plan calls for the school department to receive approximately $416,000 of that money. 

Assistant Superintendent Felicia Moschella said the money will be used to fund a couple new positions, but will mostly go to cover COVID-19-related expenses. For example, due to limits on the number of kids allowed on a school bus at one time, Abington has to pay for additional bus runs, as well as daily bus cleanings. Other expenses include remote learning classes for secondary school students, more hall/lunch/recess/bathroom monitors, and additional long-term substitutes and nurses. The school department is looking to bring in additional staff to help with students learning English. 

Some of the additional state income will offset drops in local revenue. Personal property taxes, meals taxes, and permitting fees are all trending low. In addition, the school department is now projecting to take in less federal Medicare money that is used to offset education costs for significantly disabled students. 

Finance Director Sue Moquin said she hasn’t yet received meals tax receipts from the state for the first three months of the fiscal year, but that meals tax collections ended up $75,000 below expectations in Fiscal Year 2020, which ended June 30.

Abington has more than $3 million in its stabilization fund, which acts as the town’s savings account. In addition, the town finished FY 20 in the black, although the exact amount will not be done until the state finishes its annual accounting review.

Abington has applied for approximately $1.3 million in reimbursement through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Better known as the CARES ACT, the federal program provided Plymouth County with a $90 million pool of money to reimburse local communities for pandemic-related expenses incurred between March and December 2020. Abington’s request would cover a laundry list of unanticipated expenses, such as additional staffing hours, buying personal protective equipment, laptops and other technology that allowed employees to work from home, and the cost of using Zoom to conduct town meetings. 

One of the storm clouds Salah referenced is next year’s state aid numbers. Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael Rodrigues said recently that hes protecting a $5 billion shortfall between expected revenues and money needed to maintain services next year. The size of that figure means state and education aid next year is unlikely. During past recessions, the Legislature has sometimes cut the amount of state aid it sends back year over year.

State Rep. Alyson Sullivan said as of now the plan is to level fund state aid.

“The discussion we have had with leadership and [the House Ways and Means Committee] is the intent is to hold harmless,” she said.

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