The Plymouth Select Board has an eye on the future.
PLYMOUTH – The Select Board has an eye on the future. Prompted by a motion by Patrick Flaherty, the town’s executive committee agreed to review three-year projections when making budget decisions, beginning with the next fiscal year.
“I am dismayed at the current process that focuses on short-term budget issues and lacks critical information to determine the long-term financial stability of Plymouth,” the Select Board member said. “Fundamental elements of our financial planning process are missing. Our one-year-at-a-time approach is borderline irresponsible. It lacks forward-looking strategies and doesn’t have contingency planning in case economic factors change.”
Flaherty cited fiscal 2010 as an example. That year, the Massachusetts Legislature appropriated nearly 21 percent less in overall local aid in the state budget. He wondered what the town would do if there is a downturn in the economy and that happens again.
“What is our contingency plan for the next three years at the department level?” he asked. “Are we going to raise taxes, cut services, borrow money, reduce staff?”
Flaherty said the Select Board needs to know pertinent details about the budget cycle, including the outlook for the next three years and any projected budget increases for new debt, pension liability increases, other post-employment benefit liability, employee salaries, employee health insurance costs, raw materials cost, and infrastructure and capital investment.
“The Select Board is being asked to vote on critical issues that affect Plymouth financially for years to come,” he said. “No fiscally responsible person would consider what has been presented to the board as enough information to make an educated decision.”
Flaherty expressed concern about planning for fiscal year 2021 and into the future when revenues may be in decline. He cited statistics by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which is projecting growth of the state budget at less than 2 percent, which is half the historical average.
“What does this mean for Plymouth?” he asked. “Should we be expecting the same amount of state funding as last year? Should we plan for a decrease in state funding?”
He added, “I feel the process of planning budgets one year at a time boxes us into making uneducated decisions that could result in unnecessary tax increases, reduction of public services and reduction of benefits to Plymouth employees, current and past.”
In his motion, Flaherty requested that Town Manager Melissa Arrighi provide a budget forecast for the next three years – 2022 through 2024 – that includes forecasts by department of all known year-over-year expense increases, existing and new debt, and any additional items the town is obligated to add to the budget each year.
“Let’s get on board with the three-year vision of our town’s financial position so we can make financially responsible decisions, take a long view of Plymouth’s future, get out of this one-year-at-a-time cycle, and stop planning to spend money that we may not have,” Flaherty said.
The board voted unanimously in support of the motion, which was greeted by applause by the gallery of citizens attending the meeting.
Arrighi said she expected she could provide the budget projections before the next meeting since department heads have conducted similar reviews in the past.
“This is not different than anything we’ve done internally,” she said. “I should be able to get these figures to you next week so you have a better idea of how things will affect the bottom line.”