Wareham Town Meetings voters approve a lean, $62 million budget

Apr 24, 2018

Town Meeting voters approved a $62 million town budget on Monday. But officials said several major departments, including police, municipal maintenance and the school department, which will see Minot Forest Elementary close this year to save money, are drastically underfunded.

Approval of the school department’s $29 million budget capped months of debate and one packed public hearing where more than 100 people decried a plan to cut staff and close the school.

In the weeks before Town Meeting, School Committee members wrestled with a decision to reduce their initial $29.4 million budget, which was approved this winter. Town officials said only $28.8 million was available for the school district due to lackluster municipal revenues. During a special meeting held hours before Town Meeting, School Committee members approved the reduced number.

Business Manager Michael MacMillan said an additional $220,000 was added from the state, which recently released additional money related to a change in a charter school spending formula.

While the additional funds weren’t enough to keep Minot Forest Elementary open, MacMillan said that fewer staff positions will be cut. Initially, roughly 32 positions were proposed to be cut. MacMillan said that number will be less now, but a final number hasn’t been finalized yet.

To house the displaced students, portable classrooms, costing up to $800,000, were added to the town’s capital spending plan and approved at Town Meeting. That document provides a schedule for making major purchases.

Portable classrooms will be placed at Decas Elementary School. The decision comes as officials are working toward designing and securing funds to build a new, combined elementary school where Minot Forest is located. Officials are in favor of a three-story, $86 million building with space for 1,020 students. Plans call for completing a design in time for voters to consider a debt exclusion at the October 2018 Town Meeting. If approved, the measure would go before voters for final approval during the state's Nov. 6 election as a ballot question. The debt exclusion would temporarily raise property taxes to pay for the project for the life of the debt.

Other items in the capital spending plan, a police request to purchase four new cruisers and two motorcycles, was approved. Selectman Patrick Tropeano proposed eliminating the motorcycles for safety reasons, and instead, purchasing another police cruiser.

“I respect police officers. We pay a lot of money to get police officers trained, and it’s a shame to see them injured for stuff that is silliness,” said Tropeano. “I just think it’s a bad idea.”

Police representatives said the motorcycles were needed for traffic control. Due to the town’s many festivals, sporting events and summer weekend tourist traffic, officers would have another tool at their disposal, they noted.

“Officers on motorcycles can provide immediate response to areas that would otherwise be cut off, because of traffic, both vehicle and foot,” police representatives wrote in a handout provided to voters.

In response to some people questioning the purchase, Police Lt. John Walcek said the motorcycles were a necessity.

“I don’t like motorcycles. I’ve never ridden one, but our police department needs them,” he said.

Voters agreed, saying police officials were best equipped to know what was required to run the department.

“Police know what they want for equipment,” said Sandy Slavin. “It’s just as dangerous for a police officer to serve a warrant, it’s just as dangerous for a police officer to ride in a cruiser.”

Ultimately, Tropeano’s suggestion was rejected.

In total, $97,816 will be used this year to purchase and equip the six vehicles. Town Administrator Derek Sullivan explained the plan is to lease then purchase the vehicles over the next three years. An identical amount would have to be approved the following two years to fund the purchase of the vehicles.