WESTFORD — The new Budget Task Force — which aims to recommend a number of scenarios to address shortfalls during the FY25 budget — held its first community forum on Monday.
Officials noted several budgetary challenges the town is facing amid rising costs and stagnant revenue.
According to Finance Director Dan O’Donnell, Westford typically receives approximately $3 million in new revenue to address increased costs from year to year.
However, a number of new challenges will arise in the coming budget cycle that will result in increased costs for services, including:
- A new solid waste contract that will begin in FY25. ACME Waste will no longer provide municipal waste collection. Officials estimate a new provider could cost upwards of $500,000 to $1 million more than the town’s current contract.
- Energy costs, including natural gas and electricity could result in up to $500,000 in new costs for the town. The Select Board has approved new natural gas and electric contracts, which see a 70% and a 40% increase in costs respectively.
- Town and school union contracts are currently up for renewal. Officials project contracts could cost more than $2 million in revenue to provide cost of living increases to each of its unions.
- Employee salaries for non-union members could cost up to $500,000 in new spending. O’Donnell notes that the town “wants to make sure is paying market wages.”
- Health insurance costs are slated to rise $1 million to $2 million in new funding. The town is partially self-insured through its health insurance trust fund, meaning that the town is responsible for claims up to $125,000.
- New bus contract with Dee Bus Service could cost up to $500,000, as comparable communities have seen up to an 11% increase in costs.
- Special education private school tuitions will increase by 14% in FY24. Currently, the schools are using one-time funds to offset this increase, but the town must “find a way to work it into the budget” next year, according to O’Donnell. This increase could be upwards of $1 million.
- Officials anticipate that findings from the school feasibility study could incur costs over $2 million as the town looks to address school infrastructure.
Additional challenges, including leases for special education vehicles, uncertainty of future growth and additional expenses could arise in future budget cycles.
“We’re just in the beginning stages of this process, the final report will have more detailed information on each of these line items,” O’Donnell said.
New revenue opportunities
The task force is investigating a number of new sources of revenue to offset the impact of new expenses.
Some proposals include the sale of town-owned real estate, town and school fee increases, a split tax rate for commercial and residential property, short-term rental fees and revisiting the town’s moratorium on recreational cannabis dispensaries.
Other ideas, such as a Proposition 2 1/2 override, which would allow the town to increase its property tax levy permanently, were proposed.
Finance Committee Clerk Dennis Galvin urged the task force to consider Westford’s per capita income when considering potential fee increases.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Westford’s median income is $161,076, while its per capita income is $62,128.
Similar communities, like Concord, has a median income of $167,335, but a per capita income of $81,270 according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, Wellesley has a median income of $226,250 and a per capital income of $97,262.
“You have a lot people who could spike that, you have a lot of people who are not in that same category, so that if you hit them with nay kind of tax increase or fee, there’s gonna be some pain,” he said.
He also suggested regionalization for public safety, where he believes this approach could make the capital structure more efficient and increase retention for certain public safety roles.
“It may be time for us to make an overture to certain bordering towns to begin to discuss regionalization,” he said. “I do believe that public safety could be regionalized.”
He added, “One station could handle three towns, which isn’t an unreasonable thing to do… you’d be able to get retention from your officers a bit better because they have potential opportunities to stay here.”
The task force aims to present its initial report to the Select Board on Sept, 29 and a final report on Oct. 18.
In the meantime, the task force plans to attend the Strategic Planning Retreat at Kimball Farm on Sept. 7 as well as host a second public forum on Sept. 13.
Members of the community can submit feedback and suggestions to the task force online.