Planning a Town Budget in the Midst of a Pandemic

The Winthrop Town Council met on Tuesday, April 21, where Town Manager Austin Faison and Asst. Town Manager/CFO Anna Freedman presented the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget for the Town of Winthrop.

Faison introduced the pre-recorded presentation, now a month behind schedule, by reflecting on the “strange times” in which we are living.

“This is probably the most unique budget that I will do in my career,” he said. “We worked really hard this year to come up with priorities in a very limited budget.”

Faison added that all departments were making concessions “to ensure that there was no staff reduction.”

Governments around the Commonwealth are currently scrambling to assemble viable budgets in the middle of the economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 epidemic. Faison and his team are prepared to leverage the town’s many resources in order to create more economic resiliency.

“It is important for Winthrop to face these financial challenges head on,” he said in the presentation.

Last year, the Town switched to an online budgeting program with a web-based submission format. This year, with the help of Asst. Town Manager Freedman, it expands on those changes with more goals and precise metrics, as well as urging department heads to approach budgeting differently.

Budget Highlights

-The FY21 budget shows a 2.26 percent increase (approximately $1.46 million) over last year’s budget. This additional money will go toward fixed costs, the School Department and other town departments. The presentation showed that Winthrop has very little financial flexibility. The allocated percent of new recurring revenue growth is as follows: 62 percent to the School Department, 29 percent to fixed costs, and 9 percent to town departments.

-The budget lays out five key policy issues and initiatives to focus on in the coming year: improving the professionalism of town services; utilizing technology and optimizing service delivery; raising economic opportunity; emphasizing health, safety and community wellbeing; and delivering quality operational and financial management. These priorities are then broken down into more specific goals and objectives.

-By far, the Education Department is receiving the majority of the budget, representing almost a full third. Next is Public Works, followed by Employee Benefits.

-Property taxes is the top source of revenue, followed by state aid and PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program funding. However, current revenue projections are likely to be impacted by the economic downturn. The Town Manager’s office is in communication with economists as it evaluates its options and will be updating its projections.

-The Capital Improvement Plan includes $150,000 to support a new library roof, the Fort Banks access road study and a school water heater; $150,000 to support technology for the schools, a beach study, sidewalk repair and a new police cruiser; and $50,000 to support maintenance of town buildings and public safety projects.

-Enterprise Funds will be allocated as follows: $362,336 for harbormaster, $460,000 for ferry, $342,956 for recreation, and $323,466 for rink, all between a zero to 2 percent increase over 2020.

-The Water and Sewer Enterprise Fund is allocated $10.5 (a 3.78 percent increase) to support state-mandated projects as well as infrastructure projects in the CBD, Morton Street drainage project and the lead line replacement project. The increase could require a hike in current water/sewer rates but the Town Manager’s office is still updating those projections.

-The Winthrop Foundation will provide $500,000 to  the community for the next five years. In addition, the town will receive $2 million from Massport in Fiscal Year 2025, a 55 percent increase over what it received in 2018.

-Due to decreased state revenue as a result of COVID-19, the amount of state aid allocated to municipalities may be reduced.

CFO Freedman introduced an interactive online version of the budget with a live demonstration. The web version breaks down a 300-page document into categories, making it easy to navigate. Some graphs are interactive, allowing users to narrow search results and compare data across a four-year period. Users can even generate their own graphs by using filters.

“We really want people to dig into this online interactive budget,” said Faison. “We feel it’s the future budgeting, making it easier to show how money moves around the government.”

As for the next steps in the budget process, the Council and Finance Commission will hold joint public forums in May and department heads will be meeting to discuss their individual budgets. The Council will receive a recommended Financial Plan from the Finance Commission by May 30 and will approve those recommendations some time in June.

“I want to thank the many Town employees, Superintendent Lisa Howard and Asst. Town Manager Freedman who provided thoughtful input to this budget,” said Faison in an email. “I look forward to a collaborative process in what is likely to be a very tough financial climate.”

Both the budget presentation and the interactive online budget can be accessed on the Town’s website by going to town.winthrop.ma.us and clicking “Budget.” Questions about the FY21 budget should be emailed to [email protected]

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