“There is no clear-cut guidance…” began Rochester Town Administrator Suzanne Szyndlar as she explained FY21 operating budget reductions to the Finance Committee. During the May 18 remote meeting, Szyndlar stated several times that guidance on what state aid to cities and towns might be was unclear at this time, but she added that Rochester’s conservative revenue projections as well as a keen eye on expenses gave her confidence. “I believe we’re going to be okay.”
Rochester, like its Tri-Town neighbors, had already spent months preparing FY21 budgets for annual spring town meetings. Those budgets have been sent back to municipal department heads who were asked to trim wherever possible. On this night those cuts were reviewed.
“We have to look at everything,” Szyndlar had explained to The Wanderer during a telephone discussion a week previously. “Local receipts primarily from SEMASS, excise taxes, permits, investment income… that is what we plan for,” she had said. “We always plan conservatively… but it’s challenging, unknown times.”
Going department by department, the board members and Szyndlar with the cooperation of department heads found approximately $138,000 in cuts that would not impede the town from operating with fiscal prudency through FY21.
A part-time, town-clerk position will be removed, representing $15,000 in savings and a new projected department budget of $142,000.
Facilities expenses including new flooring in town hall will be pushed off at least until the fall town meeting, reducing that line item by $15,500 with a new total of $397,000.
Rochester’s Fire Department found $8,251 from various equipment purchases that can be trimmed for now, leaving a departmental budget of $326,640.
The Building Department and Zoning Board of Appeals, which is currently only meeting to handle emergency hearings, will be cut by $3,000, leaving $128,115.
Rochester’s Highway Department reduced its budget by $25,000 with a newly adjusted budget of $557,921 and snow removal cut to $4,000.
Rochester’s Council on Aging was able to reduce its budget by $4,868, primarily from staffing for a new budget total of $261,929.
A modest $900 was offered up by the Library director, leaving $232,930.
Another $9,000 in savings generated by cutting back on accumulated sick-leave benefits, leaving the balance at $5,000.
The biggest cut came from the Rochester Memorial School, whose planners agreed to reduce their overall budget by $52,270, leaving an operating budget of $6,011,697. This cut Szyndlar stated was from a supplies and programs line item.
Member David Arancio asked if those departments with budgets over the 2.5-percent levy were ready to defend them on town meeting floor. Szyndlar responded that they were but that most were under that number, bringing the total town budget to a 1.97 percent increase.
Regarding unrestricted state aid, Szyndlar said that she anticipates an approximately $112,000 reduction and state aid to schools decreasing by $40,000. She said that by the fall the state should have a better handle on revenue losses and that by being fiscally conservative now and in the coming years, “…we’re going to be covered.” But she also cautioned, “the state can’t run at a deficit… it may be late fall before we know anything.”
Everyone agreed that the next few years would be financially difficult given the amount of money swallowed up by COVID-19. Arancio suggested that the Finance Committee begin its FY22 budget process sooner than later to give the committee ample time to study revenues and expenses.
Presently a June 22 town meeting is planned, but where and how remains unclear. Selectman Woody Hartley said he had been to Rochester Memorial School, had taken measurements and that planning was underway that included non-family members having ample distancing. “I think we can get 100 people in there,” he said.
Hartley was asked by member Peter Armanetti if the town would be following state guidelines on re-opening and other state regulations associated with the pandemic. “That’s up to the Board of Health,” Hartley responded.
The next meeting of the Rochester Finance Committee will be posted once scheduled.
Rochester Finance Committee
By Marilou Newell