Before the Annual Town Meeting takes place at Brookline High School on May 24 at 7 pm, town members will review articles of the warrant regarding budget proposals, resolutions, recognitions, zoning and general by-laws. Town members and residents submitted articles, or petitions, between February 11 and March 10. They will have a chance to vote on 23 articles at the meeting.
“The most important article every year is the budget article,” said Neil Wishinsky, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, about Article 8, which focuses on the annual appropriations.
With the fiscal year of 2017 soon approaching on July 1, up to 248 Town Meeting Members will vote on how the budget revenue of $260,537,877 will be spent among various town departments.
“The first and most important job that town meeting has to do is improve the budget,” Wishinsky said. “No money can be spent by the town, unless a town meeting approves it.”
If the Town of Brookline wants to borrow and spend money, it is only at town meetings where approvals are passed. For example, if the town needs to borrow money for schools or requests for changes in zoning by-laws, only town meetings can make these approvals. Budgeting and talking numbers can be tedious and boring, but town officials say it is important for the community to engage.
“It’s budget and in these numbers that are kind of an expression of Brookline’s values, an expression of what Brookline thinks is important,” Wishinsky said. “So as boring as talking about budgets and numbers might be to some people, it really is a statement of how you want to spend your resources and what’s important to you, and what’s important to the community.”
The FY 2017 budget is $291 million of revenues and expenses, which is a 4.1 percent increase from FY2016. Property taxes are the largest source of the town’s budget revenue, bringing in about 78.5 percent, ranking only second to state aid.
There are a variety of pressures on the budget’s expenses, such as the increasing cost of health insurance, wage increases, and an increase in school enrollment. For education, a proposed allocation of the FY2017 general fund operating budget is 57.6 percent, with the remaining 42 percent disperse for other town needs, like Public Works, Public Safety, and Cultural Resources, just to name three. Of the FY2017 total financial plan expenditures, $100,692,256 of $252,697,810, that’s 34.6 percent, is for schools. The School Department got a 5 percent increase this year, compared to FY2016 for appropriations.
“More of the budget has been going toward schools, mainly because enrollment is increasing,” Wishinsky said, referring to more families moving to Brookline to be in the city. “If you want to live in the city, and you want to have good schools, Brookline is the likely candidate.”
He said the rate of enrollment is at a point where buildings are exceeding capacity and not enough schools.
“So in addition to just needing money for teachers, we’re also going to need money to build,” he continued. “We have a three-year plan to fund the operations, but what we haven’t funded is the cost of building the buildings. We’re gonna have to go back to the tax payers at some point.”
Back in 1980, Massachusetts passed a state law that says no town can collect more than 2.5 percent tax, unless it supports Debt Exclusion or an Override referendum. Since 2006, Brookline’s elementary school enrollment increased by 38 percent. Last May the town voted for Debt Exclusion, allowing the town to tax more than the appropriated 2.5 percent limit, providing financial relief in order to support the Town and School services, and help pay for projects, such as replacing and expanding the Devotion School.
Kleckner budgeting for Brookline is a collaborative effort
Town Administrator Melvin A. Kleckner is responsible for developing and proposing the town’s annual budget plan by mid-February. Prior to that, he works with the town’s department heads, such as departments of public works, fire department, and police department to figure out how much money each department needs. Then the proposed budget article goes to two boards, the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory committee, for review and to recommend any changes to the warrant article, with all other articles. Then both bodies present their version of recommendations for the Town Meeting members to review before the Annual Town Meeting, where they all vote on the articles. For Kleckner, seeing how the town members vote is the biggest night of the year.
“So I’m very nervous,” he said. “It’s a test of my abilities to put together a good budget.”
The approved budget proposals will take effect on July 1, and the town will start to spend its money on departments. Any approved articles regarding general by-laws will be submitted to the state attorney general to make sure that is constitutional. If there are any articles that did not get approved, committees will be created for the purpose of working toward a resolution.
For example, Kleckner said although there’s no articles that are considered controversial, there are two that are as controversial as it gets. For instance, Article 10, which petitions to ban the sale or distribution of tobacco products in Brookline, or Article 17, a petition regarding trash bins, doesn’t pass, then the articles would be referred to a committee to get a resolution that can be presented at the next town meeting.
Frey puts the hard work into creating a warrant article
Ernest Frey, 70, has been a Brookline resident for 30 years. He submitted Article 13, which is about zoning. With at least 10 required signatures from registered Brookline voters, he petitioned for more timely notice, before any scheduled neighborhood meetings, regarding zoning by laws, or planned construction for buildings.
“You can’t surprise people with meetings where you get short notice,” Frey said. “If I lived directly across the street and they were going to tear down a building, I would like to know about that more than two days before [neighborhood meetings]. It’s going to affect the value of property, disrupt the traffic on my street, it’s going to disrupt the neighborhood.”
Frey said that he’s not trying to prevent any building changes or zoning improvements, but rather just wants to prepare for any possible outcomes with timely notices. As it stands, zoning by-law states that notifications must be dispersed within neighborhoods, but does not detail how much prior notice is required.
After consulting with the town’s planning department, he submitted a petition to have prior notice at least seven days ahead of any community changes. Frey said he expects to face no challenges on his article at the Annual Town Meeting, because so far both the Advisory Committee and the Board of Selectmen unanimously have supported his article when he went to present it before them at public hearings, which are held prior to town meetings. In past years, he’s submitted other articles before and have seen all the ups and downs.
“It can be frustrating,” he said. “I’ve seen some petitioners come out of the Advisory Committee just exhausted because the Advisory Committee are very thorough in their examining of warrant articles. Sometimes petitioners don’t think of all the ramifications of their warrant article, and the Advisory Committee members catch it.”
Frey is the president of the Brookline Town Meeting Association, a non-partisan and non-advocacy association group that puts effort on educating Brookline residents about Town Meetings. With the Town Moderator, the association published the Town Meeting Handbook, available on the town’s website.
The handbook cites from the 2010 Federal Census that Brookline’s population is 58,732, and by 2014 there are 38,618 registered voters. The Board of Selectman is the town’s executive authority and is made up of five members, who were elected by Brookline’s registered voters on May 3. The Board of Selectman appoints the Town Administrator. The Advisory Committee is the town’s finance committee and is made up of 20 to 30 members, who are appointed by the Moderator. The Moderator is the officer of Town Meeting and is elected by Brookline voters. There are 15 representative Town Meeting Members for each precinct, who are elected by Brookline voters.
Kleckner said that it’s significant that the Town of Brookline has a purely democratic process because community members decide their own fate in this Town Meeting government.
“The quality of their life will depend on the town government and services provided, the status of their home and condo, which is usually a person’s largest investment, the ability of their home to stay at the level in terms of the assets value is all dependent on the way the town works,” he said. “A huge hotel in your backyard? That’s going to really affect life.”
The impact of the town meeting
Town meeting starts on May 24, and can take three to four nights over a span of two weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Town meetings happen twice a year. The Annual Town Meeting this month is mandatory and the Special Town Meeting in November on the week before Thanksgiving, which the Selectmen may call into session to review and vote on more article submissions from citizens and, in some case, from other departments. Since it takes place in the middle of the fiscal year, there are no budget proposals.
Kleckner explains that the Town of Brookline is a $300 million operation, and an organization this huge needs town meetings to be in session multiple times a year.
“We have a lot of components,” he said. “Our town meetings have to be in session to approve certain things in order for us to move along and do the things.”
From his experience as an active Brookline resident, Frey said reaching out is the way to be heard.
“If you want to make a difference in this town, if there are things not working for you in this town, communicate with your Town Meeting Members, and your town departments on whatever the situation is,” Frey said.
Wishinsky said he likes hearing from people.
“Stop me on the street,” he said, noting that his number and email is also on the town’s website. “I personally like getting emails.”
He explained that typically people have interest in parts of the budget proposals in areas that they experience in life, like wanting a tree on their street, wanting a street paved, or regarding education if they have a child in school.
“If they’re really interested, they should run for town meeting,” he said about becoming a Town Meeting Member.