Conway wrestling with debt exclusion, budget

Recorder Staff
Friday, March 02, 2018

CONWAY — It’s budget season, and rising school costs are again a driving factor in this year’s spending estimate, which town officials are working hard to level fund through a $330,550 debt exclusion before annual town meeting.

Town officials expect that Conway will receive $6,714,704 in revenue (which includes the debt exclusion, temporarily raising taxes to pay off), to offset the majority of costs for a budget that, with all departmental requests included, was $92,093 in the red starting out.

However, Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson has suggested a reduction of $137,000 by reducing or denying some of those requests to create a more affordable budget.

“After many years of fiscal health, owing to a Proposition 2½ override for the Conway Grammar School in the early 1990s, Conway’s expenses have finally caught up to the Proposition 2½ levy limit,” Hutcheson said in a statement attached to a budget draft that the Selectboard is expected to discuss at a board meeting on Monday starting at 6 p.m. in the Town Hall.

Driving this year’s increases, educational expenses for the Union 38 School District and Franklin Regional Technical School — including transportation costs — account for $204,052 of a total $240,940 more in spending over last year’s budget of $5,586,776.

“There has been little new growth since the ‘great recession’ to help absorb the increase in the annual operating expenses, which is unfortunate, especially as most of the increases come from items that are not directly under town administrative control (schools, health care, etc.),” Hutcheson continued. “It has therefore been necessary to raise taxes substantially to cover anticipated expenses, both capital and operational, so as not to get too far behind increasing expenses.”

Hutcheson noted that some figures contained in the projected budget haven’t yet been solidified. The finalized budget will come before the town for a vote at this year’s annual town meeting, scheduled for May 14 at 7:30 p.m. in the Conway Grammar School. The warrant will close on March 12.

While school costs account for a little less than 60 percent of the town’s total budget — which Hutcheson said has “very little ‘fat’ to trim” — there are other items impacting the expanded bottom line.

“Another reason for the deficit is the recent practice of funding the proposed highway garage through annual investments in the stabilization fund rather than borrowing. In doing this, some borrowing costs are saved, but this is at the expense of the continued investment in town operations and especially capital, which needs more, rather than less, investment,” Hutcheson said, noting that “I agree with the voters at the last annual Town Meeting that work on a new garage should proceed; however, the committee currently lacks the optimal make-up to help move the project forward.”

Built into the proposed budget is about $800,000 in spending requests, which could theoretically be reduced without harming the town’s $5,827,706 operating budget. Notably, a few of those requests are to help pay for a bridge replacement on North Poland Road; to purchase a new police cruiser and an excavator; and for the proposed highway garage at some point in the future.

Other line items within the operating budget that are expected to go up this year include $24,281 more in employee costs; $8,200 more for town insurance; $8,500 to pay town audits; $8,180 in information technology expenses; $9,532 in Highway Department salaries; and $10,000 in ambulance fees.

Leveling off those increases are $30,033 less in Highway Department expenses; $29,868 less in debt services; a $7,893 decrease in what the town pays to the Franklin Regional Council of Governments; and $1,731 in Assessor expenses.

Town officials are expected to hammer out a finalized budget in the coming weeks.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

Twitter: @AndyCCastillo