Edgecomb selectmen are waiting for a response from the school committee on two questions prior to approving the 2023 May town meeting warrant. On March 9, selectmen reviewed the wording of all 61 articles. Chairman Mike Smith and Selectman Ted Hugger recommended approval of all articles except two regarding the school budget. Selectmen objected to a large increase in the system administration’s budget and won’t support the article unless it is reduced by $39,000.
Smith characterized the system administration increase as due to a larger than expected cost from the accounting firm hired by AOS 98. “That is not an expense that needs to be passed along to the taxpayer. We need to know about that $39,000 figure. That’s the objection,” Smith said. “We’ve had discussions that the increase was as high as $51,000 being applied to Edgecomb.”
The second objection relates to a wording change in a reserve account. Article 59 seeks voter authorization to appropriate up to $50,000 from an unassigned fund balance (surplus) placed in the capital fund improvement reserve account and authorizing the school committee to expend amounts from that account as it deemed appropriate. The account would pay for unanticipated expenditures related to traditional student education which may arise during the year, according to the proposed warrant article. The fund would pay for tuition, transportation, or hiring additional staff. The fund would not lapse at the fiscal year’s end.
Last year, a similar question required select board approval for such expenditures. Selectmen sought an explanation from school committee member George Chase, who attended the special board meeting. “George, what did you guys do? Did you intentionally withhold those words,” Smith asked. “You changed the name of the account (contingency fund) and took out the meat.” Chase responded he didn’t know the wording changed. “I’m surprised that was taken out of there,” he said. “I thought the verbiage was being worked to make it more inclusive specifically for special needs students.”
Selectmen will give the school committee an option of changing the wording of both objectionable articles prior to making a final decision. Chase told selectmen the school committee will consider both requests March 13.
During the March 7 budget hearing, selectmen heard from various department heads about the municipal and school budgets. The selectmen and budget committee recommend the following municipal expenditures: general government, $202,000, a 14.5% increase; public safety, $352,265, a 26.45% increase; highways and bridges, $861,906, a 6.9% increase; and Boothbay Regional Refuse and Disposal District, $164,946, a 6.98% increase. Selectmen had concerns about the $3,093,380 school budget with a 11.5% increase and $2,619,512 town assessment with a 20.4% increase.
During the budget hearing, Hugger told school committee chairman Heather Sinclair, as a businessman, he could not operate with a 20% cost increase. “When you have an increase that large you find ways to fix it,” he said. “Every year, it’s the same thing with little or no effort to reduce the budget. A case in point is the administrative overhead with the accountant. What happened?”
Sinclair explained the 20% increase was due to continuing pandemic-era programs previously funded through state and federal grants. She also tried to put the budget proposal in perspective. She reported the school committee had reduced the town assessment by 10% in 2023 and by 9% in 2022. She compared the Fiscal Year 24 assessment as 1.9% higher than FY 21’s.
“I can try. A 20% increase is inaccurate, The assessment was reduced by 10% last year to put it into context, and the Fiscal Year 24 assessment is 1.9% higher than Fiscal Year 21,” she said. But as Sinclair began to speak, Smith let out an exaggerated sigh and said, “Just letting out a little air.” Sinclair paused, and responded to the interruption. “I think with the amount of work I do for the community I deserve a level of respect that I’m not entirely sure I’m receiving,” she said.
Sinclair continued by explaining circumstances around the large increase in system administrations. Sinclair recounted how the AOS in-house business manager left. “This resulted in hiring a private accounting firm. The AOS chose Berry, Talbot and Roy, and they’ve done a fabulous job. They informed us of a substantial increase and we decided to extend them for another year while we search for an in-house solution,” she said.
Sinclair and Superintendent Bob Kahler were not sure how much the increase impacted Edgecomb, but she estimated Edgecomb’s share was $38,000. After Sinclair answered the question, Smith apologized. “I do apologize to you, Heather, that was somewhat rude of me. I want to let you know I’m troubled how you talk to me as if I’m not as smart as you,” he said.
Sinclair also objected to the assertion the school committee did not make any cuts. “It’s wildly inappropriate to say we haven’t made any reductions. If we got everything we wanted it would’ve been a 48% increase,” she said.
On March 13, Hugger reported selectmen plan to meet Tuesday, March 14 to finalize the town meeting warrant.