By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
Fairhaven Selectboard members Daniel Freitas and Keith Silvia on 9/8 denied Selectboard member Bob Espindola’s request for the Department of Revenue to conduct a COVID-19-related financial management study, calling it “something that can wait.” Later, Finance Director/ Treasurer Wendy Graves confirmed that the Town is facing a $1 million shortfall in revenue as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Town Administrator Mark Rees had instructed Ms. Graves to prepare three different fiscal year 2021 budgets adjusted around the $927,572 revenue loss: one that would rely 100% on budget cuts, one that would use reserve funds to cover 100% of the shortfall, and one for 50% budget cut and 50% reserve fund spending to balance the budget.
Ms. Graves said the pandemic “made deep cuts to a lot of the revenue,” later saying, “Most of the cuts are due to the COVID.”
According to Ms. Graves, roughly 10% of motor vehicle excise taxes will remain uncollected for the fiscal year budget, and she estimates a roughly 40% drop in room and meal tax revenue, mostly due to restaurants either closing down during the pandemic or only offering takeout.
Ms. Graves said the Town has about $12 million in reserve funds, including $4 million in free cash, $3 million in the Stabilization Fund, and $5.6 million in the General Fund.
She recommended the 50-50 option for FY21, which cuts about $450,000 from the operating budget, mostly in office supplies, association dues, conference line items that aren’t needed due to the many cancellations, and mileage line items likely not needed due to a pandemic-induced decrease in employee travel.
Relying solely on budget cuts might have resulted in some town employee layoffs.
“Which we didn’t feel like that would be good,” she said, while relying on reserve funds to balance the budget would not be fiscally responsible.
Mr. Espindola asked about adding additional funding to the legal budget, which was level-funded from the prior year and likely in need of an increase.
The board looked to Town Counsel Thomas Crotty for input.
“The last few months have been fairly intensive in terms of legal time and billing and, I mean, we’re only into the first part of the year,” said Mr. Crotty. “If we could turn that around that would be great.”
If not, though, he said the Town might need to add 25-50% more to the legal budget.
That could be about another $135,000 Mr. Espindola commented.
Mr. Espindola pushed hard for his fellow Selectboard members to approve the DOR financial management study earlier in the meeting, which he said could provide the Town new ideas and updated best practices for managing town finances amidst and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and at no cost to the Town.
However, both Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia said there are issues more important than Mr. Espindola’s concerns about the town’s finances post-pandemic that need to be dealt with first, such as the matter of low morale among Town Hall employees.
Mr. Espindola insisted that COVID-19’s impact on the budget is “very significant,” especially as the Town faces two major capital projects in the near future: wastewater treatment plant upgrades and a new public safety facility, roughly $30 million combined.
Like the 2012 DOR study, an updated study would identify ways the Town could increase efficiency and financial solvency, he said, and urged Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia to vote in favor of the study on behalf of Fairhaven taxpayers.
He asked them if they could honestly say to any given taxpayer “that you feel that the town cannot improve in any way [or] that we are absolutely as good as it’s going to get” in terms of how Town Hall operates.
“The question is, can you answer them by saying either ‘Yes’ … or, ‘No, we really don’t have that capacity and I think having someone from outside look at our situation and make recommendations to us in a lot of different areas … could be very, very helpful,’ especially as we enter this time that we’re entering now,” said Mr. Espindola.
He said the DOR might have new best practices for cyber security, among other things, and the study should be done sooner rather than later.
Just as he was introducing a representative from the DOR to talk about the study, Mr. Freitas interrupted Mr. Espindola and said that there would be no public input on the matter.
Mr. Freitas said he had already gone through this with Mr. Espindola several times, he allowed him to make his pitch, already looked at the proposal, and not only once but twice decided against it.
“I feel absolutely this is the right thing to do and we should do this for this free study,” said Mr. Espindola. He said any board member who votes against it should have to explain to the taxpayers why.
“There are more pressing matters that we have within the Town Hall right now that we have to get over before we start adding things to this,” said Mr. Freitas, adding that perhaps Mr. Espindola’s concerns could be addressed some time in the future, but “now is not the time.”
“We got enough problems here,” said Mr. Freitas. “This is something that can wait.”
Mr. Silvia said Mr. Espindola had some good questions and concerns, “But I ran my campaign on I wanted to fix what was wrong right now,” saying his “personal agenda” is what he needs to address first.
“In my mind, there can be a parallel process,” said Mr. Espindola. “We don’t have to stop everything else we’re doing to look at the issues that we’re concerned about at Town Hall…. This study would be done by the DOR; the three of us would not work on this study,” and the engagement process for a Town Hall morale study would be done by a consultant, he added, not affecting the Selectboard’s workload.
“We can do multiple things at the same time,” said Mr. Espindola.
He also pointed to the need to cut $1 million from the FY21 budget, and said, “That’s very substantial,” and something to take into context.
Mr. Espindola made his motion for a DOR study, which was not seconded. Instead, Mr. Silvia formed his own motion in the negative to not undertake the study and perhaps revisit it again in the future.
“We just don’t wanna talk about it now,” said Mr. Freitas to Mr. Espindola, who pushed for a possible date when he could bring the subject up again.
Meanwhile, two residents attempted to speak on the matter, which Mr. Freitas at first refused, but resident Mary Lorenzo insisted.
“Mr. Espindola has had two issue on this agenda that seem to me would improve how the town is acting as far as boards are concerned and as far as budgets are concerned,” said Ms. Lorenzo. The other matter, which was a discussion on providing training to Zoning Board of Appeals members and the Selectboard, was tabled. “And this one, seems to me, everyone is dismissing it.
“I’m just getting a little bit upset about this,” Ms. Lorenzo said. “[Mr. Espindola] is just trying to help…”
Mr. Freitas said the Selectboard could not just demand that ZBA members take classes, and wanted them in the room for the discussion.
The ZBA is a board appointed by the Selectboard.
In other matters, in a 2-1 vote with Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia in favor, the town will move forward with a 10% renewable energy consumption increase in the next electrical community aggregate agreement, but only if residents and business owners are properly informed about the change ahead of time.
Mr. Freitas tasked himself, Climate Reality Massachusetts SouthCoast chairperson and Fairhaven resident Laura Gardner, and resident John Methia to prepare educational material to be included in upcoming water bills.
Mr. Espindola vehemently opposed the opt-out only option that would bring an average increase of $2 to $3 per household, but more to Fairhaven businesses that use more electricity. His concern was about financial hardship in the midst of the pandemic.
During his Marine Resources Committee update, Mr. Espindola stated that the harbormaster reported that the Labor Day weekend was “busy, but not in a good way,” with a number of vessels that were sinking and a jet skier rescue Monday evening.
In other matters, a stop sign was approved for the intersection of Dudley Street and Glenhaven Avenue; the Metro Harvest, Inc. adult-use marijuana retail facility application was forwarded to the Planning & Economic Development Department for zoning compliance.
The board entered executive session to discuss strategy with respect to a pending legal claim. Mr. Freitas was ordered to recuse himself from participating in the executive session. The agenda item gave no indication of what the topic/issue is.
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