Officials discuss budget deficit, long-term concerns at joint meeting

By Douglas McCulloch | Apr 09, 2018

Faced with slowing growth, increased spending, and fiscal uncertainty, Dartmouth officials are worrying about the growing risk of budget deficits over the coming years.

At a joint meeting with the Select Board, Finance Committee, and School Committee on April 9, town Budget and Finance Director Greg Barnes updated the boards on efforts to narrow what was originally a $500,000 deficit for the fiscal year 2019 budget, which is still being worked on.

That total now stands at $106,916. Officials increased estimates of new revenue and scaled back spending while still remaining within the town's fiscal policies. That can't be counted on in the years to come, however.

The town’s new growth has fallen, Barnes explained. There are fewer new solar farms, expansion of medical space is slowing down, and state aid still hasn't reached levels seen before the Great Recession.

“I am not claiming our revenues are declining, but what I am saying though is the rate of growth is decreasing,” Barnes said. “That creates issues should the town not moderate its expense growth.”

Barnes added that it is unclear how the marijuana industry will fit into the town's fiscal picture. No facilities currently operate in Dartmouth, but one is on the way.

“My point is you can’t count on what you truly don’t know,” Barnes said. “It could be a plus to the town’s finances, but I do not have that factored into these assumptions.”

Barnes also presented new financial projections through fiscal year 2021, which shows the potential for more deficits that will need solving in the coming years.

The biggest chunk of the town’s budget goes to the schools. School Business Manager James Kiely gave the boards an overview of the district’s fiscal year 2019 budget, which includes few major additions.

Kiely and Superintendent Bonny Gifford highlighted the district’s new therapeutic program to better serve students who otherwise would need out-of-district services. It is expected to save the district money by reducing the number of students, and thus costs, associated with out-of-district tuition and retain more students with special needs.

Select Board member Shawn McDonald asked school officials how the federal law requiring education of homeless children affects the budget. Kiely said although the governor's office has decreased placements of homeless families into hotels in Dartmouth, it is picking up again.

“We have some money built into the budget for it, but you never know what you’re going to get in terms of needy kids,” Kiely said. “It’s pretty much impossible to plan for. We just do the best we can.”

According to the financial projections, tuition payments to both Greater New Bedford Vocational Technical High School and Bristol County Agricultural High School for students attending those out-of-district schools are expected to increase.

In Bristol Aggie’s case, spending could triple in 2020 to $181,239 and could reach $312,005 by 2021, according to the financial projections. The county-operated school is set to be renovated.

“So much of these deficits are driven by things that are out of our control,” said Shannon Jenkins from the School Committee. “95 percent of the projected 2020 deficit is due to [Bristol Aggie and New Bedford Voc Tech]. There’s only so much we can do there.”

Finance Committee member Doug Roscoe noted the committee had met with officials from the Greater New Bedford Voc Tech in the past, and raised concerns with the school’s spending as many budget items are higher than the state average.

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