by Glenn C. Koenig, webmaster at Town Wide Mall
Maynard, MA - Last night the Town of Maynard Finance Committee held its latest meeting, starting at 7 PM. The bulk of the meeting had two purposes, to review all the articles in the Warrant for Town Meeting, coming up in about a week and a half, and to take a look at some challenges related to long term financial planning for the town.
The meeting was still wrapping up around 10 PM when I clicked the “Leave” button on my computer screen. Although that may seem like a long time to sit in at a meeting, even from home, it was well organized by the committee, and moderated by the Chair, Alannah Gustavson.
The committee, often referred to in short hand as the “Fin Comm," (or "FINCOMM" in the Warrant), has the job of reviewing everything having anything to do with money and finances that will be voted on at Maynard’s Town Meeting, scheduled for Monday, May 15th. For details, you can use this link:
This year, the Warrant, which is essentially the agenda of what’s to be voted on at the meeting, runs 65 pages of mostly single spaced type intermingled with tables showing dollar amounts for the various budgets and funds used to operate the town for the coming year. There are 38 articles, (essentially items on the agenda) listed in its pages. One reason it’s a bit longer this year has to do with an update of the town’s Charter, an overall guiding document for town operations, sort of like our constitution. State Law dictates that it be reviewed every ten years, and this is our year.
As if all these pages are not daunting enough, the document also uses various terms and language that have been traditional in town governments for decades, or even centuries. Fortunately, there is a glossary of terms on page 3 to help, but even then, some concepts take awhile to fully understand. For example, although the term, “Free Cash,” might remind you finding a coin on the sidewalk while out for a stroll, the concept is a bit more complicated than that ... although it would be nice if somewhere around $2 million just dropped out of the sky!
It also doesn’t help that the “Fiscal Year” used by towns in Massachusetts starts on July 1st, rather than January 1st. The fiscal years are named after when they end, rather than when they start, so this meeting concerned itself with Fiscal Year (or "FY") ’24, even though it starts on the first day of July, 2023.
It certainly helps to apply the three most important principles of journalism when encountering all this: Curiosity, Diligence, and Patience. A sense of humor is certainly recommended as well (thus my title for this News report).
A version of the Warrant, printed as a booklet, was supposed to be mailed to every household in town, but if you didn’t get one, there is a link provided (on the web page I referenced above) to view it online. I believe extra printed copies are available at the Town Hall and the Library, and should also be present at the meeting itself on the 15th.
For the visually interested, like me, here's a little diagram on how Free Cash works:
The Finance Committee meeting was held remotely, with Committee members and a few interested members of the public logged in over Zoom. As with many meetings, it was forced into this mode at the start of the pandemic, but I actually prefer it this way, for a number of reasons: It’s easier to hear people when it’s their turn to speak. The name of each person appears right on the screen, so it’s easier to get to know who’s who (a boon for folks such as myself who are terrible at names). And it’s much easier to read and follow the documents on a desktop computer, rather than squint at a projection screen across the room, under garish fluorescent lights.
When I joined the meeting, a few minutes late, there was a discussion going on about that very same “free cash” that I just mentioned, above. This occurred because some money budgeted for the school department in FY 2022, was not spent by them, partly based on the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Some children were not in classrooms and certain costs were not incurred. Money not spent in a given fiscal year is transferred into the Free Cash account and can then be allocated by a vote at the Town Meeting later on, often for unexpected needs.
At the meeting, one contingent urged that this exact amount should be given back to the schools, now that “things are back to normal” (the pandemic is mostly over). However, another contingent stressed that if they didn’t need to spend it back then, then it simply wasn’t needed, so we should use it for anything that Free Cash is traditionally used for (those unexpected costs, more fully described on page 9 of the Warrant).
Later on, there was more discussion related to two articles that have been submitted by what’s called a “Citizens’ Petition” rather than by a town board or department. One, Article 33, requests that the new elementary school (proposed to be built to replace the existing Green Meadow School) operate without fossil fuels. The other, Article 34, is a request that the town adopt a revised building code, known as the “Stretch” code for any new buildings built in town. This code pertains to new rules regarding insulation, energy efficiency, and so forth. I think it’s important to note that Article 34 refers only to any new buildings to be built in town; existing buildings do not have to be renovated or rebuilt.
During this discussion, I suspended my role as reporter and asked some questions in my role as an ordinary citizen, voter, and taxpayer. One thing I wanted to clarify is that the cost of new school buildings is not included in the school budget itself. Rather, the town borrows the money and combines it with available state funding to pay for building them after which the school department then uses money in its budget to operate and maintain them.
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Shortly after 9 PM, after all the articles in the Warrant had been discussed, the meeting turned to a presentation related to planning for the long term. The presentation consisted of a number of slides with commentary, laying out some of the financial challenges we expect Maynard to face in the coming 5 to 10 years. It was prepared with input from a variety of people in town (in addition to Finance Committee members), including Bob McCarthy, now on the Maynard Marketing Task Force.
The presentation referred to both likely challenges and opportunities we may have to meet them. This kind of thing is often difficult for towns to grapple with, since Town Meeting, as with most legislatures, must concern itself with one fiscal year at a time only. In addition, there are many forces over which the town has little or no control that can greatly impact how much money we may have, and what we may have to spend it on.
The pandemic is one significant example of this. Changes in state and federal policy and funding are another. Economic downturns, continuing “supply chain” interruptions, labor and resource shortages, as well as shifts in the real estate market, are all important, yet unpredictable. We are almost like small boat, making our way on the surface of a sea, beset by occasional high waves and storms. We do what we can to steer our way along.
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On a personal note, I plan to attend Town Meeting on the 15th, but one thing I’m not looking forward to is the likely confusion that may stem from the fact that the Town Charter is divided up into “Articles” but the agenda items at Town Meeting are also referred to as “Articles.” I don’t envy the moderator, who must try to keep everything straight, as well as the voters who attend, who may wish to get up to speak. To be clear, the Charter has “Articles” (analogous to the Articles found in the US Constitution) numbered from 1 through 7, whereas they will be discussed during the meeting when it gets to Articles 9 through 15 in the Warrant. Thankfully each Charter Article has its own separate Article in the Warrant to amend it, so you can just subtract 8. Are you following me, here? No? I don’t blame you.