Board of Selectmen hears community’s budget concerns


Presentation by Jodi Ross

On 12/17, the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen presented the town budget and opened the forum for community input.

Mahi Kandage, Editor-in-Chief

At the Board of Selectman meeting on December 17, the Board members and Town Manager addressed the budget concerns circulating the town, and they also gave a presentation regarding the reasons for the restricted town budget, its distribution, and the implications. The presentation regarding the town’s budget covers the distribution of resources, as well as the revenue.

In an effort to become more transparent in their work, the town will put out a report of the meeting with links, documents, and information. However, the Board and Selectman Mark Kost encouraged community participation in the decisions being made.

“It’s an evolving process […] it’s the beginning of a two-and-a-half-month process,” Kost said.

The Board and town encourage participation in their efforts to direct the town budget.

School Committee member Gloria Miller described the intent of frontloading the process of allocating the school budget.

“This change in process was intended to increase transparency and increase public input,” Miller said.

Westford’s changing demographics strain the budget, with 25% of the population consisting of school-age children, and 25% of senior citizens, The presentation cites these increases as part of the reason for the budget issues.

“874 new members joined COA [Council on Aging] since FY16… LRTA [Lowell Regional Transit Authority] rides increased from 7,336 in FY16 to 9,852 in FY19 for 34.3% increase,” the presentation said.

The Board presented on multiple reasons that the budget seems constrained, with less funding allocated  to the school system than it does typically. Some of these include health insurance costs for employees, demographic changes, school enrollment decreases, and population increases.

In the past ten years, the 9% increase in Westford’s population has led to a need for more safety officials, shown by the corresponding 69% increase in police calls, and according to the Board, greater complexity of calls.

“With the proposed FY21 budget, we will have added 4 police officers and 5 firefighter/paramedics in total,” the presentation reads.

In addition, the rising costs of health insurance for employees and a rising number of employees who rely on a better health insurance plan than used in previous years require more funds. According to the presentation, since 2010, health care costs have increased by 75%, and the school employee base has grown by 24%.

In response to comments from the audience and from the presentations, the Board and community proposed some ideas to increase overall revenue for the town. A pay-to-throw, a sort of trash tax, was suggested, as well as increasing business growth in the town; however, a board member stated that new growth would need careful balancing with preserving the greenery of the town.

Filling vacant storefronts, which in Westford are taxed equally with residential housing, may help increase overall tax revenue, a matter which the Economic Development Committee would be tasked to handle. However, the main idea the Board and townspeople conveyed to increase the budget was another override, with a campaign for the cause.

The Board also advocated for pressuring politicians at the state level to allocate more money for school and town funding. However, with variables such as weather conditions furthering burdening the budget, Ross cited a way the town had already worked to combat these costs.

“The selectman did implement a stormwater fee this year […] that is a new revenue source,” Ross said.

The meeting allowed for comments and questions from the audience; community members such as Superintendent Bill Olsen, WEA President Michael Colson, WA Class Presidents, and residents spoke after the Board ended the presentation with the final slide, which read:

“We welcome your input and suggestions […] We are committed to examining each and every opportunity […] We strive to continue to provide high-quality services for our residents.”

The next School Committee meeting will take place on 13 January, while the Board of Selectmen meet on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month in the Town Hall at 7:30 PM.