Amid fiscal uncertainty, Dracut selectmen consider adopting partial budget

In a virtual meeting of the Dracut Board of Selectmen Tuesday, Town Manager Ann Vandal explains the potential benefits of postponing Town Meeting and adopting a 1/12 budget.

DRACUT — With the outlook of state and local finances still nebulous in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the Board of Selectmen began discussions Tuesday night around potentially postponing Town Meeting until the fall and operating on a 1/12 budget until then.

According to Town Manager Ann Vandal, opting to do so would essentially allow the town to operate on a month-to-month budget until officials have more information about the impact of the public health emergency on local and state revenues. Though the board previously voted to move Town Meeting to June 30, Vandal said Tuesday that the town likely won’t have a clear picture of its finances for fiscal year 2021 until after that date.

“I don’t personally think it’s a good idea to set us up so that we adopt a budget at the June Town Meeting at a certain level and then by the time we get our numbers from the state it could be July or August,” she said during the virtual meeting. “So by the November Town Meeting, we’d be revisiting the entire budget and we would have to roll back decisions that we made for the July 1 budget.”

In light of the pandemic, the town has already instituted a hiring freeze for fiscal year 2020 with the exception of mandated positions, as well as a freeze on nonessential spending.

Department heads have also been asked to submit revised budget requests this month for fiscal year 2021 with reductions of 5%, 10%, 15% and 20%, Vandal said.

Meanwhile, the town is attempting to bolster its revenues through grant funding. Dracut has so far received a $30,000 grant to aid in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, and the town is in the process of applying for several others, according to Vandal.

“Considering everything that’s up in the air and we just don’t have answers for at this time, I think we’ll be in a better position to make a really informed decision about where we are in fiscal year 21 beyond June 30,” she said.

Some town projects may be delayed due to the budget uncertainty, Vandal said, such as the replacement of roofs at the Council on Aging, which could be postponed until at least the fall Town Meeting.

The town does hope to move forward with a project to replace roofs at the Brookside and Englesby schools, and is currently working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority to determine if it would be possible to extend the deadline for project funding agreements, she told the board. Vandal also said she is looking into pushing the debt for that project off to fiscal year 2022 in order to “soften the blow” for fiscal year 2021.

Though she didn’t touch on potential staffing impacts, Vandal did mention that the budgetary situation could potentially alter plans to bring four recruits through the Police Academy this summer.

“I’m not convinced that we’re going to have the funding available to pay for that, and that may be a victim of our issue,” Vandal said. “The goal is for that not to be a victim, and we’re gonna do everything we can to keep that in play.”

Adopting a 1/12 budget would allow the town to cover any necessary assessments and debt service payments over the next six months, though it would not allow the town to increase salaries or increase appropriations from certain premiums, she said. If selectmen decide to postpone Town Meeting to the fall, that would likely be the only Town Meeting held this year.

“If we could use that $10,000 somewhere else, I mean, I think one Town Meeting for this fiscal year is probably doable,” Selectman Alison Hughes said Tuesday, referring to the cost of hosting the annual meetings.

Vandal said she plans to provide the selectmen with additional information and asked that the board consider the request at its next meeting later this month, which will likely be on May 26.