By Max Bowenemail@example.com
To cope with the immediate and future fiscal impacts of COVID-19, Town Manager Michael Borg has developed a three-year plan for the North Attleborough’s budget.
At Monday’s Town Council meeting, Borg said that because of COVID-19 the budget has been constantly changing, and more is expected in the future. Perhaps the most significant is the decrease to state aid, which he said could range from 10-30 percent. In dollar amounts, this would be between $2.3 and $7.1 million.
“Regardless of the amount, any loss is going to affect North Attleborough,” he said.
As of Monday, the town has seen a total of 218 COVID-19 cases, of which there have been 76 recoveries, and this number is expected to greatly increase. Tragically, there have been 25 deaths to date. Hospitalizations in Bristol County have dropped from 6 to 4 percent. Borg said that staff continue to wear PPE daily.
“It’s a sign that we are winning,” he said of the decreased hospitalizations.
To cope with the expected state aid drop, Borg has been meeting with department heads to see what monies can be turned back to the town. Doing so would help avoid utilizing the Stabilization Fund or cutting positions and services. All told, he said that approximately $2.6 million has been converted into Free Cash, which would allow for the town to absorb a 20 percent state aid decrease. If this goes to 30 percent, Borg said that budget would need to be recalled and at that point, the Stabilization Fund may need to be utilized.
“We are well positioned to withstand this and move into FY 21,” he said.
The three-year plan covers fiscal years 2021, 2022, and 2023. The town had recently passed a budget for FY21, but had to review it once it became clear that large shortfalls would be coming. Borg referred to the first year as the “stabilization period,” the second as “the adjusted phase,” and the third as “the new normal.”
In the first year of the plan the emphasis is on saving money. This includes instituting a hiring freeze except for essential positions and reviewing any over $500 on a case-by-case basis. Capital improvement projects that have not yet begun have been halted. The town would look for new growth or grant opportunities, and would not make its normal $400,000 contribution to the Other Postemployment Benefits [OPEB] account.
“We’re not the same town we were on March 1,” he said.
Borg said that the Capital Improvement Program and OPEB contributions would likely resume in FY 22, and any unfilled positions would be reviewed to see which are essential. As of now the town is 95 percent staffed. It’s unknown at this time what state aid would be in the next fiscal year. The third year of the plan is focused on capitalizing on new growth and seeing what unfilled positions can be addressed.
“The real takeaway is this budget is part of a three-year outlook to get us back to new normal,” said Borg.
The town manager’s plan also takes into account a number of budget drivers. Among these is the expected drop in new growth, which was originally estimated at $500,000. A 192-unit apartment complex on 21 East St. had to stop all work when some of the employees tested positive for COVID-19. Work has since resumed, but should the project’s opening be delayed, any revenue the town would see would be pushed back as well. With the closure of businesses, Borg said local receipts are estimated to see a 11.4 percent drop.
Moving forward, Borg said that new opportunities for growth and efficiencies would be sought. Downtown North Attleborough has a lot of opportunity, he said, and the town needs to be flexible enough to pursue these. Since the closure of Town Hall in March, nearly all town business is done through phone calls or online. This would likely continue, and Borg cited how the building department has done inspections through Viewpoint, a project management software. Energy efficiencies would also be explored as a means to save money. Heating oil was recently purchased for the municipal buildings at a price of 85 cents per gallon, far lower than the usual cost of $2-$3.
Borg said that despite all these changes and impacts, COVID-19 would not define North Attleborough.
“While it may limit the way we interact with each other, it doesn’t limit our potential,” he said. “We will move forward.”