The Select Board during its meeting Tuesday night approved by a 4-0 vote a budget message that stressed frugality to town departments when making their fiscal year 2025 budget requests. The town is bracing for a challenging budget season, with a current projected shortfall of at least $1.7 million.
Town Manager Norman Khumalo gave a presentation before a joint meeting of the Select Board, the School Committee and the Appropriation Committee on the town’s fiscal situation. He said “the town will be challenged to sustain” FY 24 service levels, asking that the Select Board agree that department budget requests not exceed 4.4% over the previous fiscal year. He recommended a “freeze on service-level enhancements” and “new starts” in order to avoid a potential property tax override.
Khumalo stressed that this conversation was “the financial starting point” for the FY 25 budget cycle, as changes could occur depending on the amount of state aid received. Local aid is estimated to increase by 5% over FY 24, a smaller gain than in past years.
At this point, estimates show a projected revenue shortfall of “at least $1.7 million,” he said. While the budget prioritizes the delivery of town services, capital needs such as maintaining and replacing town infrastructure also are anticipated. Maintaining the stabilization fund at $700,000 will help Hopkinton maintain its AAA bond rating. This will result in the lowest possible rates of interest on financing for capital projects, including the potential Elmwood School replacement project.
Khumalo reminded the audience that the town has faced and solved budget shortfalls in the past. It can be accomplished if departments reduce their funding requests and if one-time funding requests are made for new recurring costs. The last resort would be an override of property tax limits imposed under Proposition 2½.
Said Khumalo: “Will work to sustain the town’s excellent services while saving the town’s long-term fiscal stability and long-term strategic objectives.”
Select Board member Amy Ritterbusch said an override would not be advisable given the town’s upcoming capital projects. Member Mary Jo LaFreniere stressed that departments get their budget requests in as soon as possible to avoid last-minute impacts to other departments.
Vice chair Shahidul Mannan focused on the growth the town has experienced during the past decade. Despite the increasing demand on services, he did not want to compromise the quality of town services or overburden taxpayers.
Chair Muriel Kramer asked how the current financial situation would impact potential capital projects. School Committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh noted that middle school and high school renovation requests will remain on hold. A new preschool and central office could be incorporated into the new Elmwood building if necessary.
Police Department review, hiring procedure discussed
Khumalo also gave the Select Board the Police Department report, as HPD Chief Joseph Bennett was unable to attend the meeting.
Regarding the upcoming departmental review, Bennett said via Khumalo that the search for a vendor has been difficult “given the tight timeline.” Two vendors are being considered.
Members said items to include in the review are staff retention and a plan for leadership succession for officers. Kramer stressed the need for “team cohesion and development,” transparency, and training in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging for officers. Another goal is for the inclusion of the Select Board in the process of hiring and promoting officers, she said, as the board is the appointing authority under the town charter.
LaFreniere commented that the department has been hampered by its lack of ability to promote officers, an issue that drew a firestorm of criticism at a Select Board meeting last month.
Kramer proposed that the Select Board hold a meeting between two weeks to a month before an intended hiring or promotion. Candidates can attend along with Bennett, Khumalo and a representative from the Human Resources Department. This would allow the Select Board to learn more about a candidate recommended by Bennett before a vote on their service is scheduled.
Said Kramer: “I think that building in an opportunity for this board to ask questions about how the hiring or the promotion fits into the overall development of the department certainly makes sense to me.”
Ritterbusch and Mannan agreed, while LaFreniere did not comment. Select Board member Irfan Nasrullah did not attend the meeting.
Bennett also said he met with Hopkinton Public Schools Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh, School Department staff, current school resource officers and a Department of Youth and Family Services member to discuss the school resource officer program. They will meet before the Select Board with a program presentation in the near future.
Select Board votes 4-0 to fill committee vacancies
The Select Board voted for the following people to fill vacancies on committees:
- Praveen Hariharan for a one-year term on the Commission on Disability
- High school freshman Qingxu (Thomas) Pan for a three-year term on the Youth Commission
- John Cardillo for a three-year term on the Veterans Celebration Committee