'The town had no money.' Hopedale approves $1.35M override to balance town budget

HOPEDALE — Voters have approved a $1.35 million override in the town's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, a move that avoids closure of the Bancroft Memorial Library and Hopedale Senior Center but raises property taxes on residents and businesses.

Interim Town Administrator Jeff Nutting put it bluntly: "The town had no money, we had no other option."

Nutting, who was Franklin's town administrator for 18 years before retiring in 2019, was appointed interim administrator in Hopedale last year after former Town Administrator Diana Schindler resigned.

A document prepared by Nutting in April indicated that a successful override vote would raise the annual taxes due on a typical Hopedale home — one valued at $450,000 — by $562 for fiscal 2024, which begins July 1. That estimate accounts for only the override, and is in addition to any tax increases associated with the regular town budget.

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The override had to be approved both at Town Meeting on May 16 and during a special town election a week later. Of 1,483 ballots cast during the special election, 1,075 people voted in favor of the override with 405 against.

In addition to closure of the library and senior center, a failed override would have also meant cuts in teachers, sports programs, transportation services and summer programs.

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The need for an override was the result of a gap between the town's projected revenues and expenses for fiscal 2024, according to an online statement about Hopedale's financial position. The gap was estimated to be more than $1.86 million.

"A $2 million gap is huge in a little town," Nutting said. He said the gap was not hard to figure out when the process began for making the coming fiscal year's budget.

"We had an honest debate about it," Nutting said, explaining that discussions and presentations were targeted toward the schools, senior center and parks commission.

"In order to balance the budget, the recommendation is to reduce the school budget request by over $1 million, close the library, senior center and parks programs, along with several other reductions in the requested budgets," the document prepared by Nutting earlier this year reads.

Use of free cash

Hopedale has been using free cash — funds left over from previous years — to help balance its annual budget. Nutting's report compared the free cash to getting a bonus.

"In other words, your yearly expenses exceed your yearly income, so you did the best you could to get by using the bonus but now you face an even bigger problem. Something must give. You need to cut some expenses or earn extra income," the report reads.

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The snapshot goes on to say that Hopedale is in the same situation, and has been living off the "bonus," but that the town needs to phase out this practice.

Nutting's snapshot said cuts must be made in the school budget, library, council on aging, parks and other budgets or there would need to be an override.

Hopedale's budget shortfall

Revenue sources for Hopedale are projected to increase in the next fiscal year, according to Nutting's report. The town's revenue would increase from property taxes ($604,000), state aid ($34,000, which varies) and local receipts such as excise tax and fees ($119,000). These totals, along with the proposed use of $100,000 from free cash, would bring in $857,000 in additional available revenue.

However, a $521,236 increase in expenses to Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, as well as debt and interest, pension and other items, would leave just $335,764 available for all other town departments.

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According to the town, the projected deficit would have been $1,766,800, which would require cuts to close, including more than $1 million from the school budget.

Thanks to the override vote, however, those cuts did not occur.

Hopedale previously held override votes in 2019 and 2020. Voters approved a $430,000 override in 2019 but rejected a $1.3 million proposed override in 2020.

Bancroft Memorial Library Director Tricia Perry said that if the override not passed, a library closure would have been a "critical" loss for the town.

"If the library closes," she said, "the library loses certification from the state. Once you lose certification, you cannot regain certification for a full fiscal year."

Tricia Perry, director of Hopedale's Bancroft Library, said closure would have been a "critical" loss for the town.
Tricia Perry, director of Hopedale's Bancroft Library, said closure would have been a "critical" loss for the town.

Perry also said that if the Hopedale library had closed, libraries in the Central and Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing (CW MARS) network would have revoked borrowing privileges from Hopedale residents.

Also, Bancroft Library staff members would have lost their jobs on July 1.

"The staff were thrilled when it passed, it would have been devastating for the community," Perry said.

According to Nutting, the town took other measures to save money, including cutting vacant positions and cutting overtime in the Fire, Police and Highway departments.

This article originally appeared on The Milford Daily News: Hopedale approves $1.35M override to keep library, senior center open