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Royalston tightens budget in response to pandemic


For Athol Daily News
Published: 4/3/2020 5:07:20 PM
Modified: 4/3/2020 5:07:06 PM

ATHOL — Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic having an economic impact on businesses, individuals and families, it is also putting a pinch on municipal budgets. The latest example comes from Royalston, where the Selectboard voted Tuesday night to instruct department heads to avoid spending on any non-essential goods or services, and to require that any expenditure of $300 or more proposed by department heads first be approved by the board.

As deliberations on the policy began, there was general agreement that board approval be required for, as initially discussed, any spending over $500. The meeting was held remotely using audio only.

“I believe that spending (over $500) should require approval from the Selectboard, period,” said board member Roland Hamel. “But how are you going to classify what’s essential and non-essential? We should have a list. You tell them ‘don’t spend money on anything non-essential’ — well, what’s non-essential?”

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this,” said board Chair Deb D’Amico, “and one question that has come up is, do we continue to pay people who are not able to work? We have some hourly employees who can’t work because their office or place of work is closed. I feel that supporting them financially is essential. Frankly, the money has been appropriated for those salaries so I would say that qualifies as essential.”

“I agree with you,” board member Chris Long interjected, adding she had briefly considered not compensating hourly workers who are no longer on the job. “I think we should stand our people as much as possible.”

Long noted that D’Amico had begun compiling a list of what might be considered essential and non-essential, but the board decided it would be impractical to cover everything in writing.

Town Accountant Lori Bolasevich said that in the town of Harvard, where she also works, that community has also moved to clamp down on non-essential spending.

“In their policy,” she said, “they used words like ‘mandatory,’ ‘required by law,’ or ‘utilities.’” Those are the kinds of things that are essential. ‘Mandatory’ came up because town clerks have elections — there are things they have to do surrounding elections and town meetings that they have to spend money on. Then there are utilities, gas, oil, electricity. Those kinds of things are essential and have to be paid. Office supplies, office chairs, those are the kinds of things that can wait.”

Finance Committee Chair Larry Siegel, represented at the meeting by ex-officio committee member Phil Rabinowitz, opposed the move, believing department heads should be allowed to spend their budgets as they see fit since they were all approved at Town Meeting.

In the end, however, the Selectboard voted unanimously to require that expenditures over $300 receive its approval. Instead of including in the final motion any specifics relative to what is or isn’t essential, it was decided to instruct D’Amico to send a memo to department heads urging them to keep a tight rein on their budgets for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

Since many Town Meetings are being postponed, and municipal budgets require Town Meeting approval, it’s not yet known if budgets will be done in time for the traditional start of the fiscal year on July 1.

Hamel said department heads should be discouraged from spending down their budgets at the end of the year, which he said was a common practice, in the hope some funds would be left over and rolled into next year’s free cash account.

“With things as tight as they are,” he said, “that money could be very helpful.”

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