Crabtree briefs selectmen on his preliminary spending plan for the 2024 Fiscal Year; selectmen send plan to Finance Committee
Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree stressed there is much uncertainty surrounding his preliminary $125.4 million budget for the 2024 Fiscal Year that begins July 1 as he unveiled his spending plan on Monday night (Feb. 27) in the cozy first floor conference room at Town Hall.
“We’ve done a good job of balancing spending within our means,” Crabtree told selectmen.
But he also urged caution when it comes to the School Department, which he noted has an estimated budget recommendation of $30.8 million, which is an increase of $500,000 over the current 2023 Fiscal Year budget approved by Town Meeting last spring. Crabtree’s recommendation for the School Budget is about a million dollars less than what the School Committee approved recently, and that shaved off more than half of the $32.8 million first recommended by Superintendent Erin McMahon back in January. McMahon remains on paid administrative while an investigation into alleged unspecified misconduct – reportedly involving alleged financial mismanagement – continues.
“We got to be careful that we’re not increasing an operating budget that’s not sustainable,” Crabtree said, referring to the School Department.
“Money doesn’t equal success,” the town manager said, adding that he worries that public confidence is eroded in the midst of budget discussions when school officials seek huge increases in the School Department budget.
“I think that’s happened over the years for the schools,” Crabtree said.
Crabtree’s overall spending plan and his explanation seemed well received by selectmen, who approved the preliminary budget document, sending it to the Finance Committee, which could begin its budget meetings soon. (See related story.)
“There are challenges in preparing the estimates of expenditures in this Budget, such as Town-wide fixed cost increases,” Crabtree noted in his budget message. He cited the following concerns:
Health Insurance: The rates have not been finalized by the provider, but will be set within the next few months. The cost of insurance has gone up 4.9%, or $785,000, over last year.
Trash hauling and incineration rates continue to increase: In addition, the cost of disposal of recyclable materials continues to increase and has been impacted by increased tonnage and contamination charges.
Pension contribution: The $8.5 million payment for the 2024 Fiscal Year is an increase of more than $400,000.
Regional School Assessments: Vocational Education, including Northeast Regional Vocational Technical School and Essex North Shore Tech, is budgeted at $3.2 million, based on estimated numbers from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“As we prepared the Fiscal Year 2024 estimated revenue and expenditure budgets, many of the same concerns exist as when the Fiscal Year 2023 was approved,” Crabtree said in his message.
“The estimated revenues are slowly returning to levels prior to the pandemic as economic recovery continues and the fixed cost increases and contractual obligations continue to absorb the Proposition 2 ½ and new growth projections,” the town manager said.