By Keith Regan, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Town Manager Jim Malloy formally presented his draft of the fiscal year 2016 budget to the Board of Selectmen Jan. 13, and noted that a 2.6 percent spending increase is necessary to meet rising debt loads and a growing school budget.
The average single family home’s annual tax bill would increase about $217 under the proposal, from $8,044 to $8,261 with valuations rising modestly to take the average single family home’s worth from $432,700 to $435,929.
Malloy’s $81 million spending plan envisions growth above the 2 percent ceiling selectmen had set as a target for annual expansion, prompting questions that suggest they may look for savings as the budget process unfolds in the two months leading to Town Meeting on March 14.
“This is the beginning and not the end of the process,” said Chair George Barrette.
Selectman Ian Johnson pointed out that the budget sets aside $1.1 million for the town’s long-term liability to fund other post-employment benefits (OPEB), mainly health care for retirees.
The town is not obligated to make that payment, and the estimate of the town’s total OPEB liability has shrunk recently, though Johnson did note that the fact that Westborough has begun to set aside funds for OPEB funds has benefited the town’s bond rating, making it less expensive to borrow for long-term projects.
“It’s not something that’s required,” Johnson said. “I’m not recommending we don’t pay that. There are significant benefits to continuing to fund that liability.”
Other board members said they would comb through the budget as well in coming weeks, suggesting they remain hopeful to find ways to reduce spending. The Advisory Finance Committee begins its review of the budget late in January, Barrette noted.
“There are a lot of policy decisions in here to be made and discussed,” said Selectman Tim Dodd, who was one of several officials who lauded the clarity of Malloy’s budget message.
Growth is being driven by the school budget, which is proposed to expand by $1.1 million, and more funds needed for debt services, up $249,000 and insurance, up $269,000.
Looking ahead on the capital budget side, Malloy said even as the fire headquarters and town hall renovation projects come in under budget, proposed projects to renovate the Forbes Municipal Building and to build a recreation center would likely put the town over thresholds set by the board to limit debt as a percentage of the overall budget.
But Barrette said recent discussion between town and school officials have made him optimistic that one of the main drivers for a recreation center–growth in town-sponsored basketball programs–can possibly be addressed with existing school space.
“That’s huge as we try to manage this debt together,” Barrette said.