Skip to content

Budget crunch: Town officials warn of cuts and more overrides in coming years

Town Administrator Chas Carey, center, with Select Board members Miriam Aschkenasy, left, and Bernard Greene, right. Phioto by Artemisia Luk
February 25, 2024
Twitter  
Facebook

The message in the 2025 financial plan proposed this week by the town of Brookline was clear: the town will scrape by over the next year by balancing its budget with mostly small cuts. But in the coming years, there is a growing gap between the cost of the high-quality services that residents rely on, and ballooning cost pressures that show little sign of abating.

The plan raises the specter of bigger budget cuts and more tax overrides, including the possibility of scheduling overrides at regular intervals.

“The need for increasingly difficult choices is likely to continue in the coming years,” wrote Town Administrator Charles Carey in his budget message.

The town budget for fiscal year 2025, which starts on July 1, 2024, is $436 million.

Get the latest Brookline news free in your inbox.
All fields required. You may unsubscribe at any time.

Even incorporating $2.8 million in additional funds from the override last year, the town still needs to cut $553,800 to adequately fund its departments and end up with a balanced budget, which is required by state law.

To meet that gap, the town is planning cuts to several departments, most notably $302,000 from the police department, which will reduce its budget by four patrol officer positions.

Those positions are being “held open,” said Carey, not cut permanently. He also noted that there are currently 18 vacancies in the police department, so it’s possible those four positions would not be filled in even if they were fully funded.

Programs being cut in the town’s fiscal 2025 proposed budget. Table via Town of Brookline

The schools, which receive an allocation from the town but largely run their own budgeting process, have an even larger gap of $2.2 million between that allocation and the proposed school budget.

The schools’ initial request is for $138.6 million, a 6% increase over this year’s district budget. Approximately two-thirds of the $7.9 million increase in the request is driven by contractually-mandated increases to existing employees’ salaries, according to Susan Givens, the district’s deputy superintendent for administration and finance.

The School Committee plans to start hashing out how to address that gap at its meetings next week.

But School Committee Chair David Pearlman said that one option the district has already examined is consolidating some small elementary school class sections, which could save nearly $1 million.

Click here to see the town’s FY2025 financial plan in full and read the Town Administrator’s message.

Future budget woes

In explaining this year’s budget gap, Carey cited a significant growth in health insurance costs, (which make up 11% of the town’s operating budget), as well as “inflationary pressures” pushing up the cost of utilities, specialized student services, salaries and other benefits.

Carey warned that those cost increases are growing faster than the town’s revenue. According to the town staff’s long range financial projections, there will be an estimated $22 million gap between revenues and expenditures by 2029, primarily driven by the growing costs of paying employee benefits, and increasing costs for the town’s schools.

In fiscal year 2026, Carey said, the budget squeeze is likely to get worse than in 2025, and residents should expect bigger budget cuts then.

“I think 2026 is going to be a real crunch year. I don’t want anyone to have any illusions that there’s a money tree somewhere we can shake,” Carey said. “It’s quite the contrary. We’re really entering a lean period.”

Part of the problem is that the state’s Proposition 2.5 limits how much cities and towns in Massachusetts can increase property taxes each year. Asking town voters to approve an override, like the one passed in the municipal election last year, allows the town to raise taxes by more.

Last year’s $12 million override, which is being phased in over three years, was the biggest in Brookline’s history, Carey said. But it’s likely the town will have to turn to voters for another one once it runs out in 2026.

“We are not going to grow fast enough to meet the needs of the community,” Carey said. “I don’t want to create any illusion that we can shift our revenue overnight, dramatically enough to reset the course of a budget of our size. So we probably are looking at a three year override cycle after this current override cycle expires.”

Some positives in next year’s budget

Despite the overall gloom of the long-term financial picture, town officials have highlighted some bright spots in their plans for 2025.

The town is providing its roughly 700 employees a 2% cost of living salary increase, which Carey said will help workers keep up with rising expenses.

“I want us to be mindful of the fact that our employees’ dollars don’t go as far,” he said. “Inflation is tough, and it’s slowing, but not reversing.”

The town is also putting forward funds for various policy priorities, like fixing roads and sidewalks in town, which elected leaders on the Select Board have been pushing for.

The $5.9 million in the 2025 budget for road maintenance is the most funding for such projects in recent memory, according to town officials. In a typical year, the town spends closer to $1 million.

“The number one issue I hear from constituents is that our roadways are in generally atrocious shape,” said Paul Warren, a member of the five-person Select Board, at the board’s meeting last Tuesday. “While I appreciate the $5.9 million … I’m not convinced it’s enough.”

The budget also includes funds to study potential redevelopment in areas like Chestnut Hill and Fisher Hill, to launch a new Office of Housing Stability and to start up a new Sustainability Division in the Department of Public Works.

What’s next?

Warren said he wants to put together a committee to take a hard look at the town’s long-term financial picture and come up with recommendations.

“People want the Select Board to look forward, with a clear financial plan, to know what they’re getting into. Right now we don’t have that,” Warren said.

In the short term, the town’s Advisory Committee, made up of members appointed by the Town Moderator, will examine different pieces of next year’s budget and recommend changes.

Town Meeting will take a final vote on approving the budget ahead of the start of the fiscal year.

Jeremy Margolis contributed reporting.

×