Suhoski: Town must gird for state cuts

  • Shaun Suhoski is the Athol town manager. Staff file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2020 8:32:19 AM
Modified: 5/31/2020 8:32:16 AM

ATHOL — Members of the Selectboard and Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee met remotely Thursday to review Town Manager Shaun Suhoski’s latest version of the FY21 budget, while surrendering to the reality that voters are unlikely to see a nailed-down version of the spending package before the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

“As a group,” Suhoski told the attendees, “you’ve already discussed and understand that we will be submitting a one-twelfth budget, but we needed to have a baseline from which to develop that. It’s not simply taking last year or next year and chopping it into 12 blocks. We really needed to assess where we stood with potential revenue, while understanding the COVID-related expenses that revenue loss represents.

“Hopefully, at some point, our federal legislators will also understand that COVID is creating massive revenue losses for cities and towns and the states. But for now, we need to move forward — we need to continue operations.”

Suhoski presented the meeting with a proposed budget of just over $20.7 million, about $5 million of which will go to education.

“The general government budget is less than a two-percent increase from last year, but it still shows a deficit from our revised revenue projections. The only item that the state has given us is the budget presented by the governor, which was presented in January. Neither the House nor the Senate have offered their budgets yet, but we know they’re going to be drastically different than what the governor proposed.”

The Town Manager said he is anticipating a cut from the state of about 20 percent from the current fiscal year’s figure. Balancing the FY21 budget, therefore, will require the use of $400,000 from the town’s free cash account, along with $40,000 in wage concessions from administrative and professional staff. He said education, public safety and general government services will remain intact.

He also cautioned, however, that his budget calls for the elimination of summer recreation and beach programs, a reduction in part-time library staff, and wage deferrals from both union and non-union staff. In addition, the town will reduce its contribution to other post-employment benefits (OPEB).

Regarding likely revenues, Finance Committee Chair Ken Duffy said, “I think what Shaun is talking about is the most realistic until we get a better feel for what’s coming down from the state. From everything I’ve read, I don’t think you’re going to see local aid cut by more than 20 percent. That would be kind of a surprise.”

“I don’t want to be overly dramatic,” said Suhoski, “but the revenue loss really is catastrophic to the commonwealth and to the cities and towns. But we’re going to pull out of this and things will improve.”

“Over the past few years,” interjected Selectboard Chair Rebecca Bialecki, “Athol has done a really good job of establishing a rainy day fund, and now it’s raining. That money that you set aside (in free cash) really is intended for situations like these, where there’s a completely unforeseen crisis that hits.”

The state allows selectboards to approve one-twelfth budgets for three months in emergency situations. The Athol Selectboard will meet Tuesday to go over a one-twelfth budget cobbled together by Suhoski and, if it proves acceptable, vote to approve it. There seemed to be general agreement the town will likely see one-twelfth budgets through at least August, until state aid figures are known.

The board also plans to vote Tuesday on further postponing the annual town meeting, currently scheduled for June 29.

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