Marblehead Select Board to include schools in override proposal

For the first time in a public meeting, the Marblehead Select Board acknowledged the Marblehead Public Schools would be included in the Proposition 2 1/2 override proposed under Article 31 of the 2023 town warrant.

“We have been working hard to develop a more collaborative relationship with the town,” Superintendent John Buckey told the Marblehead Current, calling the Select Board’s direction “a very encouraging sign.”

Buckey added, “The Select Board’s inclusion of the schools in its override request affirms that they recognize the school district’s financial constraints and will join us in asking voters to invest appropriately in public education here in Marblehead.”

Marblehead Finance Director Aleesha Nunley-Benjamin addresses the Select Board during a budget discussion on Friday morning, March 17. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

The statement of the board’s position came Friday, March 17, as members of the Select Board discussed a draft document that would put forward two separate proposals to increase property taxes to address a projected structural deficit in Fiscal Year 2024.

While no numbers were provided on the size of the structural deficit or the overrides, the first override request would target the projected structural deficit stemming from the town’s reliance on free cash to balance its annual budget.

 “Marblehead’s budget is dependent on free cash, which ought to be zero,” said Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer. “We’re relying on free cash to be 10% of the operating budget.” Overall, Kezer has said the town anticipates capturing an estimated $105.2 million in revenue to fund services in FY 2024, an increase of $1.3 million from FY 2023. Coming up with a figure representing expenditures is more challenging but underway, with Kezer and the Finance Department trying to nail that down. 

In FY 2024, the town estimates free cash to come in at $8.5 million, a $2.1 million decrease over the $10.6 million used to balance the FY 2023 budget. 

“We’ve hit a free cash wall because we don’t have enough to cover the difference between revenue and expenditures,”said Select Board Chair Moses Grader.

Grader said the town is assembling a no-override FY 2024 budget where revenue matches expenditures. State law mandates towns to pass a balanced budget, and this no-override exercise will help Marblehead pinpoint its structural deficit by identifying the cuts that would be needed to reach a balanced budget.

“We’re going to prepare a balanced budget, and we’re going to show cuts to that,” said Grader. “And those cuts are going to amount to the structural deficit; then we’re going to propose an override to cover the structural deficit to provide that one year plug.”

Stabilization fund approach

The second override would put a to-be-determined amount of money into the town’s stabilization fund, into which Town Meeting has already deposited $500,000 over the past two years. 

Municipalities set up stabilization funds to squirrel away money and build a financial cushion. The town can dip into the reserve fund during economic uncertainty, revenue shortfalls and unexpected emergencies.

Putting money raised via a general override into a stabilization fund could appeal to Town Meeting members on the fence about Abbot Hall’s fiscal management. Stabilization funds have built-in transparency and accountability. Most prominently, two-thirds of voters at Town Meeting would have to approve withdrawing money from the fund.

Therefore, officials would have to make an argument before Town Meeting when they want to pull from the fund, and they would have to identify the purposes.

The proposal notes the use of the stabilization fund would achieve three goals:

— Move Marblehead away from free cash as a revenue source.

— Provide Marblehead with a buffer going into FY 2025.

— Offer the town a transparent operating buffer funding source. 

Select Board member Erin Noonan expressed support for the first override that would “keep the lights on.”

However, she wasn’t sold on the stabilization fund at this time.

“I just feel personally that it’s biting off more than we can chew,” she said. “At this moment, I feel like it risks putting our keep-the-lights-on override in jeopardy when we go to the polls.” 

With five weeks until Town Meeting convenes, she wished Friday’s conversations had played out earlier. She believes that while stabilization funds are beneficial, the town should first develop clear financial policies, multi-year financial outlooks and numerate funding streams.

She also expressed concern that proposing two general overrides could confuse voters.

Kezer said the proposal’s approach would buy time for the now built-out Marblehead Finance Department to get the town’s fiscal house in order.

“I think the whole idea of having the one-year approach at this point is to buy us some runway space to do exactly what you’re asking for,” he told Noonan. 

Once voters approve general overrides, the approved amount “becomes a permanent part of the levy limit and increases by 2.5 percent each year after its acceptance,” the Massachusetts Division of Local Services explains. 

Grader did not have an immediate answer when the Marblehead Current asked about what the town planned to do with the additional tax revenue in subsequent years if the town approves the general overrides. That would be clarified as the discussion moves forward, he said.

Select Board member Jackie Belf-Becker voiced support for Kezer’s proposal but would “like to see a number as soon as possible.”

“It’s a little difficult to explain the pros and cons without a number,” she said.

She added she would like to see the town hold public forums to explain and listen to the public on the override situation. 

The Select Board plans to vote on the proposal, known as “a statement of intent,” on March 22 after incorporating language suggested during Friday’s meeting.

Leigh Blander contributed reporting for this article.

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