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Needham Town Meeting passes budget, paints optimistic picture of finances

Posted by Evan Allen  May 8, 2012 12:30 PM

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Needham Town Meeting members passed the town’s budget during the first night of Annual Town Meeting on Monday. It was a quiet beginning for what will likely be a hotly contested set of warrant articles at the next session, with nearly all of Monday night’s articles passing unanimously – including the $117.7 million budget.

“Needham is in good financial shape,” said Board of Selectmen Chair Jerry Wasserman as he presented the budget, which represents an increase of 4.7% over last year and benefited from an unexpected surplus of free cash and reserve fund money.

“We’ve come through this economic downturn very, very well,” said Wasserman.

In the last two budgets, according to the Finance Committee, the town relied heavily on one-time funds to balance the budget without cutting services. In contrast, the budget passed on Monday was funded almost completely with recurring funds.

Because of higher-than-projected town revenues and lower-than-expected expenditures, said Lisa Zappala of the Finance Committee, the town of Needham also has an “unusual” level of free cash this year.

Free cash refers to funds that were budgeted for a purpose but were not needed for that purpose. Needham typically has about $3.4 million to $3.6 million in free cash to work with each year, said Zappala. This year, she said, Needham has $5.4 million.

That free cash will allow the town to purchase capital items including a fire truck, said Zappala, that would ordinarily be funded by debt. It will also be used to bolster the town’s reserve funds, which are funds set aside for unexpected needs.

Though town officials were pleased with Needham’s current financial state, they urged fiscal caution in the coming years because of a shaky national economy and concerns over energy independence.

“While the outlook is optimistic, we still face a degree of uncertainty,” said Richard Zimbone, Vice Chair of the Finance Committee.

The town’s budget includes the school budget, which increased over last year’s budget by 5.4% to $51.1 million.

School Committee Chair Heidi Black said that the story of the school’s budget is “the story of transition.”

The budget, she said, reflects a shift from the use of one-time federal funds to recurring funds from the town; an increase in enrollment that school officials have worried will strain the department’s resources; and an increase in staff.

One question that arose among Town Meeting Members was why the town’s budget for the Minuteman Regional High School had more than doubled since the fiscal 2011 budget, from $343,969 to $780,038.

Minuteman is a technical vocational high school in Lexington attended by students from 16 cities and towns, which all contribute financially to the school.

Enrollment of Needham students in Minuteman has spiked, according to Jeffrey Stulin, Needham’s Minuteman representative.

“A large increase in number of students from Needham that choose to attend,” he said. “Since you pay for students as you go, a small number can make a larger assessment.”

Within the next two years, Stulin said, he expected to be back before Town Meeting asking for funds to finance a large capital project at the school to help overhaul its old buildings.

The budget passed with few questions from Town Meeting members.

Town Meeting members also voted to fund a collective bargaining agreement between the town and the Building Custodian and Tradesman Independent Association, which Board of Selectmen member Daniel Matthews described as “fair to employees and fair and competitive to the town.”

Members voted to fund the enterprise budget for the Solid Waste and Recycling Division of the Department of Public Works; to fund the Sewer Enterprise Fund Budget; and to fund the Water Enterprise Fund Budget.

They passed an annual article that continues departmental revolving funds and an annual article that allows free cash to be used for budget appropriations.

The most contentious article was an unlikely one: a proposal by the Planning Board to change off-street parking requirements. The proposal dealt with how much light is required in parking lots: current zoning bylaws require at least one foot candle of light, and the Planning Board, seeking flexibility, sought to change the requirement to “an average of one foot candle.” A foot candle is a measurement of light.

The change, according to the Planning Board, would simply bring the regulations into line with the practice.

But a grammatical question in a proposed amendment that called for a minimum of “.2 foot candles” of light derailed conversation and brought on waves of laughter while Town Meeting members went back and forth over whether it should be “.2 foot candles” or “.2 foot candle.”

Finally, Jeanne McKnight, settled the matter.

“I am the planning board grammarian,” she said. “In my opinion, the grammar of this is correct as worded.”

Despite concerns that without a minimum light requirement some people would have trouble seeing in dark parking lots, the article passed without the amendment.

Town Meeting will reconvene on Wednesday, and will deal with three much-debated articles.

The town is considering allowing liquor licenses for the sale of alcohol for off-premises consumption.

Town Meeting members will decide whether to support a citizens’ petition that calls on the town to lobby its state representatives to introduce an amendment to the Constitution to overturn a Supreme Court decision that gave corporations, unions and nonprofits the right to spend unlimited money in political campaigns.

And they’ll cast their votes on whether to ban pesticides in Needham.

Wednesday’s session will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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