On first night of Town Meeting, Marblehead OKs reduced-services budget

Stay with the Current for night two of Town Meeting and be sure to follow along in the Current’s Town Meeting Guide.

Marblehead Town Meeting addressed 30 articles in four hours on Monday night, passing a $112.5 million municipal budget for the fiscal year 2024. The reduced-services spending plan includes two new positions: a sustainability coordinator and a human resources director. 

Voting in action at Town Meeting on May 1 at Veterans Middle School.

Town Meeting was expected to reconvene Tuesday night with a vote on a proposed $2.5 million override that would add $252 to the tax bill for a median home of about $800,000. The override would restore many of the cuts in the budget, including 32 school staff. 

Article 30 was just one of about two dozen financial articles that attendees cleared on Town Meeting’s first night.

The Town Meeting convened at a time when Marblehead faces a structural deficit, with recurring costs — primarily salaries and employee health insurance — outpacing recurring revenues within the constraints of Massachusetts Proposition 2 1/2. The town is also experiencing a decline in free cash, a revenue source it has leaned on heavily to balance its annual budgets for several years.

Changing of the guard 

Town Moderator Jack Attridge made his debut behind the Town Meeting podium, becoming just the third moderator in 60 years. He opened the night with a moment of silence for his late predecessor, Gary Spiess, who died in November.

“I regret that he was not able to participate with us in a different way this year,” said Attridge.

The first question that prompted debate was Article 8, establishing a Revolving Transportation Fund for the schools and setting spending caps on several other funds. The school district offers busing to students who live farther than two miles of their school, for a fee. 

Public Health Director Andrew Petty addresses Town Meeting on May 1` .

“Last time I checked, I believe it was 31 students who are currently transported,” said Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Michelle Cresta.

Town Meeting ultimately approved a cap for the Transfer Station. Resident Allen Waller asked why the town needed a commercial waste collection fund with a $1.4 million cap when the actual cost associated with waste collection registered at $550,000 in fiscal year 2023. Thomas McMahon, who is running for the Board of Health, characterized the same fund as a conduit to pay for the Transfer Station’s construction.

Public Health Director Andrew Petty said his department deposits fees collected from trash stickers and commercial waste into its revolving fund. That money is used to offset department costs.

Town Meeting approved several departments’ unpaid bills, a cumulative cost of $26,788, from fiscal year 2022, under Article 6.

Article 9 was approved, setting aside $373,488 to purchase equipment, including a $48,000 boiler for the Judy and Gene Jacobi Community Center and $47,030 to replace police radios, for several departments.

Town Meeting also approved $467,533 worth of lease purchases, from a tree chipper truck to a school bus, under Article 10 on a teller vote of 668 in favor to 17 opposed.

Article 11 set aside $302,451 for capital improvements to public buildings, including a cellar door at the Fire Department’s central headquarters to create a storage yard behind the animal shelter.

Article 13’s passage will put $50,000 toward repairs to seawalls and fences. 

A resident asks a question at Town Meeting on May 1.

Article 14’s passage appropriated $400,000 from taxation to fund storm drainage construction. Likewise, Article 15 appropriated $600,000 through retained earnings from water usage fees to fund Water Department construction. And Article 16 was approved, appropriating $1 million through retained earnings from sewer fees to fund Sewer Department construction.

Town Meeting signed off on Article 17, permitting the Water and Sewer Commission to borrow $1 million through the MWRA local water system assistance program on a teller vote of 617 to 1.

Article 18 was approved, which permits the Water and Sewer Commission and the Select Board to collaborate in settling any claims or lawsuits arising from potential damages during the construction of water or sewer systems. Article 19, Article 20, and Article 21 gave 2% increases to administrative town employees, traffic supervisors and seasonal and temporary personnel. Article 22’s passage gave Town Clerk Robin Michaud a 2% increase in her pay, bringing her annual salary to $88,342. 

New human resources department

Article 24 was approved, amending general bylaws to create a human resources department and a director position to oversee it. Marblehead has never had a human resources department within its municipal government, and Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer said investing in one would save taxpayers’ money in the long run.

Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer speaks at Town Meeting on May 1.

Kezer said the HR director addition would put a person with the necessary expertise to manage all the town employee benefits — which comes to a cumulative cost of $15 million annually.

“The need for this is critical to consolidate, to better manage HR functions,” Kezer said.

Meanwhile, Article 25 was approved, authorizing the Conservation Commission to apply for public and private funding to purchase vacant land in the next fiscal year 2024. That’s if the opportunity arises. 

Town Meeting OK’d an appropriation of $468,762 (about $116,000 less than last year) under Article 26 to cover the cumulative tuition costs for 26 Marblehead students in the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School District. Mark B. Strout, Marblehead’s representative to the school district, gave a rousing speech to widespread applause. He highlighted the hands-on and practical experience that the technical school provided the town’s students.

“It sounds like we’re getting our money’s worth,” Attridge said. 

Town Meeting authorized Article 28, releasing $5,260 in fees collected from ride-sharing platforms, like Uber and Lyft, to put toward transportation maintenance costs. 

Article 29’s approval puts $8.3 million, including $8 million in free cash, toward balancing the fiscal year 2024 municipal budget. 

“We didn’t want to use the entire balance as free cash on the decline and should maintain a reserve each year,” said Kezer.

Kezer told attendees that a plan to “get off the free cash bandwagon” was in motion, adding that he endeavors to build a reserve of about $5 million, or 5% of the town’s annual budget. To that end, free cash came in at $9 million, $500,000 more than the town anticipated. The town intends to keep $1 million unappropriated, adding to the town’s reserves  — which includes $500,000 in a stabilization fund. 

“We are trying to move the town off free cash,” Kezer said, adding that it will take time. “We need to do it in a systematic approach over time.”

With regard to the debate on the budget, a handful of residents spoke against adding the human resources director and sustainability coordinator position, especially at a time when Marblehead faces a structural deficit. 

‘Crystal clear’

In the most tense moment of the evening, former School Committee member Jonathan Lederman pressed for more details about cuts to the school district’s staff and services.

“The school department has voted on a list,” Buckey told Lederman.

Lederman, “But did it vote a list of cuts.”

Buckey, “They have been presented a list of cuts when they were presented a budget.”

Lederman, “They voted to accept those cuts?”

Buckey, “They voted their budget, which included these cuts.”

Lederman, “I’m not getting into semantics here.”

Buckey, “Neither am I.”

Mathers stepped up to the podium.

“Mr. Lederman, Thank you for your question,” Mathers said to chuckles across the auditorium. “So, I just want to be crystal clear, the School Committee is highly aware and has approved in our budget put forth under Article 30 the list of services and proposed personnel that would be eliminated under this budget.” 

Leigh Blander, associate editor of the Current, contributed reporting. Stay with the Current for night two of Town Meeting and be sure to follow along in the Current’s Town Meeting Guide.

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