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Save the surplus, don’t spend it

March 14, 2012

Thanks to Mother Nature, Town Hall is in line for a major windfall this year, just months before a scheduled town-wide vote on what would be the largest local property tax increase in a decade.

As of right now, the town of Walpole stands to have a significant surplus of over $400,000 in their snow and ice budget thanks to an unusually mild winter.

This year’s relatively snowless winter, which broke numerous records for both mild temperatures and precipitation totals, stands in stark contrast to last year’s historic winter when repeated snow storms battered the town for weeks on end. The town routinely budgets more than $700,000 per year for snow and ice operations, and actually had to dip into reserve funds last year to finish the winter with their snow account in the black.

It’s a well-established fact that government budget surpluses of any kind are extraordinarily rare. Whether it is created by a force of nature, as this one apparently was, or by prudent fiscal conservatism of elected officials, which is even rarer, each budget surplus should be treated with tremendous care.

Unfortunately, Town Administrator Michael Boynton has already proposed shoveling off a significant portion of this surplus – over $150,000 – to buy yet another town vehicle.

During the one major storm of the 2011-2012 winter season – just before Halloween last October – one of the town’s dump trucks was totaled. Another town dump truck, from 1998, was scheduled to be replaced last year, with funding approved at last year’s Spring Town Meeting, but that money was instead spent on replacing the totaled truck.

Boynton asked the Board of Selectmen at their March 6 meeting whether any members of the Board had “any objection” to taking a portion of the surplus to pay for the replacement of the truck that had to be delayed.

Surprisingly, some members of the Board actually did have objections. Selectman Chris Timson had the audacity to disagree with Boynton, saying he was “hesitant” to spend surplus funds so quickly, with the town in such dire fiscal straits.

“When I see a surplus like this at a time when we’re looking at an override, part of me says we should put that towards the rainy day fund,” Timson said.

Timson suggested putting some of the money towards downtown revitalization, which Selectmen have made a priority this year.

Selectman Eric Kraus agreed with Timson that the surplus shouldn’t be spent as rapidly as Boynton is suggesting.

Boynton, probably shocked that Selectmen were rebelling against his idea to immediately spend money on a new town vehicle, insisted that the purchase was inevitable.

“If we don’t do this in the spring, come the Fall Town Meeting, I’m going to be needing $155k to get that truck replaced. So that’s a given,” Boynton said.

Only at Walpole Town Hall would buying a new town vehicle be seen as “a given,” rather than a choice.

Let’s get a few things straight.

A surplus is not an excuse to spend irresponsibly.

The town has been buying a number of new vehicles these past few years, despite red ink on the town’s balance sheets as far as the eye can see. Even during a budget crisis that has required substantial tax and fee increases starting around 2007, the town has continued to go on what can only fairly be described as a spending spree for new town vehicles.

This year, residents will be voting on a $3 million property tax override that will help pay for, among other things, a brand new police car. Last year, the town purchased a brand new SUV for the Fire Department to replace a seven year-old command vehicle. This, by the way, was at a time when other communities like Attleboro require their public safety departments to make do with 15-year-old vehicles rather than buying new ones.

If the town of Walpole truly needs a new dump truck, perhaps Boynton should have considered that when he proposed the purchases of a number of new vehicles during the past several years. He should have considered that when he included a new police car in this year’s proposed budget.

The to-be-replaced dump truck, by the way, despite its age, is still being used regularly by DPW employees and is not in any visible disrepair. Many families and businesses wouldn’t replace a car or truck until it is literally sitting on jack stands. This truck has not reached that point yet.

Boynton should ask himself if it is more important to have a new police car or a new dump truck. If a dump truck is more important, take the money being expended on a new police car to help buy the truck. If a new police car is more important, which is highly doubtful, then Boynton should forget about the new dump truck for at least a year or two years or at least until the town can right its fiscal ship.

Most families and businesses might need new cars and trucks too, but they can’t afford it. The town has a multi-million-dollar budget deficit and is on the verge of laying off dozens of teachers. If a business had a multi-million-dollar budget deficit they wouldn’t even consider buying a new truck.

Purely from a financial perspective, Boynton should know better than to be suggesting we spend even a dime on a new dump truck even if the old one has indeed been totaled and even if there is a surplus available. He should look within his existing budget and move some money around to perhaps buy this new truck. If it is really essential, he would be able to find money within his behemoth of a $70 million proposed town spending plan to do it. A good idea might be to start with forgoing the purchase of the new police car and see how much money that frees up.

Timson and Kraus have the right idea when it comes to not using the surplus for routine expenses in the annual budget. Downtown revitalization efforts, as Timson suggested, isn’t a good idea either. The best use of this surplus is to put it immediately into stabilization funds, free cash, or into the town’s Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) account. The money could even be immediately stored away for next year’s snow budget, in case next year’s winter proves to be worse. That might actually provide enough of a cushion to create a permanent, recurring surplus in the snow and ice budget that would get bigger and bigger each year.

This surplus should be saved, not spent. The surplus belongs to the taxpayers, and should not be used as a Town Hall slush fund.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lattemonster permalink
    March 15, 2012 10:58 AM

    Forgive a stupid question but … when the truck was totalled in the storm, wasn’t there an insurance check to cover the damage? Or are the trucks not insured?

  2. Sam Obar permalink
    March 15, 2012 12:33 PM

    The insurance money was not enough to cover the cost. Insurance money was a little over $20,000.

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