FRAMINGHAM – A group of former Selectmen, School Committee members, and Town of Framingham Finance Committee members from 2010 sent a letter to City of Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, Superintendent of Schools Bob Tremblay, the 11-member City Council, and the 9-member School Committee earlier this month, seeking collaboration, creativity and thoughtful deliberations on the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget by Spicer administration.
Signed By Adam Blumer, the former School Committee member wrote that he was submitting the letter on behalf of Dennis Giombetti, Laurie Lee, Charlie Sisitsky, Jason Smith, Mike Bower, Rick Finlay, Andy Limieri, David Miles, Carol Phalen, Linda Dunbrack, Elizabeth (Betty) Funk, and Dan Lampl. The emailed letter was sent to the 2020 City leaders after the mayor submitted her fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.
“All people I contacted were willing to sign on to this letter, but I was not successful in reaching every member of the Finance Committee or one former Selectman,” wrote Blumer to the City’s current leaders.
Editor’s Note: The letter was not sent to this media outlet, but it is a public document as it was sent to the entire currently elected City Council and School Committee.
Mayor Yvonne Spicer submitted a $300.9 million to the City Council for approval on April 30. The budget was $4.5 million increase over the current budget, which ends June 30.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on our community’s health and economy, it also creates enormous fiscal challenges for our city government and for next year’s budget. Current estimates are that the state of Massachusetts has a significant budget gap for this fiscal year to be closed and perhaps a 4.4 billion shortfall for FY’21, which starts in July. Local revenues are likely to be equally challenging, and there will be understandable pressure from residents and businesses to avoid tax increases,” wrote Blumer on behalf of the former leaders of the Town of Framingham in 2010.
“We each served Framingham in 2010 and had the unpleasant task of balancing our municipal budget in challenging times; thus, we know how heartbreaking the budget choices you will be forced to consider can be. We want to thank each and every one of you for the hours you’ve committed to helping Framingham through this crisis. It is not the type of job one can “shut off” when one gets home, and we acknowledge the emotional toll it can take,” wrote Blumer.
“We are writing with a few suggestions for you to consider as you shape the final budget in the next month or so. None of these ideas will avoid the pain caused by this pandemic, but taken collectively, they may help you find the “best of the worst’ choices available to you. We know that many of these have likely been discussed and/or implemented in budget drafts, but believe there is power in collecting ideas in a central place to be discussed collaboratively,” wrote Blumer.
The City Council’s finance subcommittee has been meeting for weeks reviewing the budget and making recommendations. The finance subcommittee will hold a meeting on June 1 and then be making recommendations to the full City Council to vote on in June, before the Mayor’s proposed budget starts on July 1.
The group of former elected and appointed leaders in 2010, made 5 suggestions:
Premise #1: Communication with the public is critical. There is no such thing as too much.
“The charter sets forth minimum standards for budget communication, including public budget hearings. We believe it is important to consider going far beyond that in these times. This is because right now, it is harder than ever for the public to know what is happening. Members of the public are not likely to run into officials and get informal updates or clarifications,” stated the leader in the letter.
The leaders recommended:
● Host several budget meetings beyond what is required in the charter where all parties involved can learn about how much money Framingham has its rainy day funds and discuss what percent of that should be used to help plug the FY’21 budget. These don’t have to be Council or School Committee meetings, though they could be. One might consider using non-partisan organizations like the League of Women Voters to host a forum where the public could ask questions.
● Post Q and A documents on key financial questions for the public to see. Even among those who follow the situation closely, there are conflicting sets of information on what Framingham has in “free cash”, what stabilization funds exist, and what our policies allow us to do. This should include revised estimates for all local revenue, from property taxes, hotel and
meals taxes, to building permits and new growth estimates. You should also explore what ramifications there could be to our bond rating or other areas if our reserves are not at recommended levels for a short time. These meetings should all be hosted online with documentation available beforehand.
● Communicate through as many channels as possible. People access information in a variety of ways, and the city should use all available means, including print, radio, and various online forums to share budget news. Consider using the municipal email notification system to publicize
the meetings. Alternatively, one might include information on budget process/updates in the daily COVID updates the city is already sending out. This may put the information in front of the widest possible audience.
● Remember that communication is harder in a remote setting. One cannot read body language, or know when the right time to step into a conversation is. That can give the appearance of confusion or lack of unity. Work carefully to model a collaborative, positive process even in the most difficult topics.
Premise #2: Manage for the short term and for the long term
“It is best to think of this as a multi year budget issue, not a single problem to solve. All available evidence is that even when state/local revenues begin to bounce back, it will be a slow climb, and revenues may not hit January 2020 levels for a long time. Keeping FY22 in mind to some extent as you make choices for FY21 may be harder up front, but prevent more pain in the long run,” wrote the leaders.
“Commit to trying to save as much as you can in this year’s budget to help the FY’21 budget. The fiscal year is five-sixth over, but we hope/assume the muncipal side and school side have been trying to avoid costs where possible to save for FY21. We suggest setting and publicizing a specific numerical savings target to reach both on the municipal and school
sides. It might be 3% of the budget, which would be approximately 4M on the school side and 3M on the municipal side. Having a common goal encourages shared sacrifice and allows the city and the public to track how close we are to reaching that goal. At the very least, publicizing how
and where you have currently saved builds public confidence in your collective decision making,” wrote the 2010 leaders.
” Reduce or postpone before eliminating wherever possible. In 2010, we often tried to trim positions before cutting them by making some 1.0 FTE positions to .8FTE. That allowed us to keep valuable employees and to avoid retraining costs later on. Consider furloughing rather than cutting positions where this is possible. This is also a prime opportunity to consider sharing
personnel across and within departments as a cost saver. Lastly, if people wish to work part time, we should allow that to the extent we can,” wrote Blumer on behalf of the signed 2010 elected & appointed leaders.
” Don’t forget about long-term needs. We have worked hard to continuously pay down some of our long term liabilities, but this might be a year to consider the implications of delaying OPEB contributions, limiting capital expenditures, or delaying projects that are planned but not yet scheduled. At the same time, be careful before cutting capital expenditures altogether.
Framingham’s history of delaying building and repair projects has caused us to end up spending far more money in the long run,” stated the letter.
Premise #3: Develop guiding principles to help you make difficult choices
“Develop a set of guiding principles for how you are making decisions. You have an important budget story to tell. There are only three ways to close budget gaps: cut expenses, use reserves, or raise revenues. If you have to cut, it would be helpful for the public to have a set of guiding principles for how you are making those choices. On the school side, is it your intent to
avoid teacher layoffs first and foremost? On the municipal side, which departments are the most critical to minimize reductions, and why? In 2010, we were guided by the idea of sharing the pain as much as was feasible. Again, this will not solve the problems, but will allow the public to know why you are doing what you are doing, hopefully mitigating the anger,” wrote the 2010 leaders to the 2020 leaders.
“Be upfront about risks and assumptions: There are no easy answers in this budget or the next. Make sure that the public knows what risks/opportunities are presented in budgets discussed so no one is taken by surprise later. In particular, it is critical to make sure to track our use of non-recurring revenue to avoid building a large structural deficit,” wrote those 2010 leaders.
Premise #4: Model creativity and agility—consider ideas we might not normally consider
“Salaries are the main driver in our budget. If the situation becomes as dire as some fear, one might consider approaching each union to see about wage freezes, delaying step increases or even early retirement incentives. However, that has to be done in a collaborative manner, ancan only be considered if those in leadership roles are willing to entertain the same freezes or reductions if not more. Leadership needs to set an example before others are willing to follow,” wrote the 2010 leaders to the 2020 leaders. “We should look at grant accounts carefully, both to see what unexpended funds exist and to see if there is more flexibility in how they are used that we realize. Lastly, we should consider how others might assist the city. For example, if vendors we do business with have accepted CARES
Act funding, we should explore if that can benefit Framingham in some way. In addition, there might be volunteers in town who will assist with some tasks so we can use municipal staff elsewhere.
The 2010 elected & appointed leaders suggested “Empower department heads to identify tasks/processes that have “always been done”, but
could be rethought. For example, replacement schedules for equipment developed in the past might be able to be adjusted. The school side could examine what they’ve learned about remote learning, especially for older students, that could be used in the future as we deal with growing enrollment. The best department heads will be able to prove to the public that they’ve “looked under every rock” for savings and that their proposals make sense in good fiscal times or not.”
“Acknowledge that new investments are needed–even now. While we are trying to avoid costs, it behooves us to note that COVID-19 issues may not just disappear. The health department may need more funding. We are going to need to continue to focus on economic development and support our small businesses in ways we haven’t typically done,” wrote Blumer in the email letter to the current city leadership.
Premise #5: Go slow to go fast
“The state has allowed cities and towns to slow their budget process, and to adopt 1/12th budgets for next year. It is worth considering whether this makes sense for Framingham. It would allow the city to have the best sense of how the state/federal government will or will not be able to assist Framingham. In our view, it is better to proceed more slowly with more complete information rather than cutting positions too early or passing a budget with overly rosy scenarios,” suggested the 2010 appointed & elected leaders.
“We know that you all have incredibly difficult work ahead of you, and that public meetings have already started this week to chart the course forward. We believe that a united public process to educate the community and all stakeholders is an imperative. We are confident City leaders and constituents can work together to reach an acceptable plan to move forward. Thank you in advance for all the work you are doing. Most of all, know that all of us who have been in a similar situation are rooting for your success and are here to help in any way. If we can be of any assistance, please feel free to reach out,’ concluded Blumer in his letter to the 2020 leaders on behalf of the 2010 elected & appointed leaders.