Annual Town Meeting made short work of the town’s operating budget on Monday, taking less than an hour to vet its 32 line items before deciding nearly unanimously via voice vote to approve the $226 million package.

The highly efficient dispatch of the lion’s share of the town’s overall $245 million budget was an exception in a session that consumed more than four hours. The meeting did not adjourn until just short of midnight, when the members were in the midst of a discussion on rezoning the site of the Needham Housing Authority’s Linden-Chambers housing complex.

Prior to taking up the operating budget, Town Meeting spent more than an hour approving two departmental special requests for funding totaling $130,000. The monies are slated for Planning and Health and Human Services and will be set aside should an unforeseen need arise for consulting expertise. Later, it dedicated well over an hour — without getting to a vote before members voted to adjourn the meeting — on a zoning change needed to facilitate the planned $80 million-$90 million first phase of the redevelopment of the NHA’s age-stricken buildings.

Discussion on that article will resume when Town Meeting reconvenes tonight at 7:30 at Powers Hall. It is one of 20 articles that remain on the Town Meeting to-do list.

Following a much-applauded performance by the Needham High School Chorale, the night’s business began as Town Meeting often does, with the Finance Committee’s assessment of the town’s fiscal situation.

“We felt it was important to provide Town Meeting with a sense for the town’s current debt position, the importance of future projects and the impact that these anticipated projects may have on the town’s capital position in the future,” said FinCom Chair Carol Smith Fachetti.

Fachetti noted that the specter of a more than $300 million obligation in the near future for the renovation of Pollard Middle School would strain the town’s ability to fund other capital projects. It will also burden the town’s operating budget with higher annual costs for debt repayment, perhaps into the 2040s.

“It means that we will continue to focus on balancing the needs of the town infrastructure and service delivery improvements, which are crucial, while recognizing the need to level the tax burden on residents in the future,” she said.

“The cost of future construction projects is significant,” she added, noting the estimated cost of addressing Pollard exceeds the aggregate cost of the town’s six most recent major building projects — Town Hall, High Rock School, Rosemary Recreation Complex, Sunita Williams School, the public safety buildings, and the Emery Grover Building.

On to the budget

In its first order of business, Town Meeting approved 16 of the 51 articles on the warrant via a consent motion, meaning without discussion due to their non-controversial and/or pro forma nature. The members then moved to the remaining finance articles, the most significant being the operating budget.

Town Moderator Michael Fee led a line-item-by-line-item discussion that was only occasionally interrupted by questions or comments from the 231 TM members in attendance. Even the $97.5 million Needham Public Schools budget, which accounts for 43% of the operating budget, drew only cursory review.

When the the complete package was put up for a voice vote, there appeared to be only one audible “nay.” 

The $226-million bottom line represents a 5.5% increase over FY2024. The additional $11.88 million in spending includes salaries for 19.3 new full-time equivalent positions (FTEs), including nine in the schools.

The town’ second largest department, Public Works, saw a 7.3% increase while adding four FTEs. The next two largest departments —Fire (6.3%) and Police (10.6%) — also saw increases while maintaining the same level of FTEs — 80 for the Fire Department and 63 for the Police.

The only other department to add to its headcount was Health and Human Services. Its three new FTEs were conversions of staff initially hired through federal grants where the funding will expire at the end of the calendar year. At that time the staff will convert to being town employees.

In addition to the $158 million total from the departmental budgets, the category of Townwide Expenses accounts for $65.6 million in spending. The most significant of these costs are incurred for employee health insurance, debt service and costs associated with retirees. 

The spending increases were enabled by the town’s increase in its General Fund revenue yield by 4.6%. Property tax revenue provided $192.8 million, or 78.7% of the town’s total. State aid was flat compared with FY2024, providing $15.7 million.

With the operating portion of the budget in the books, Town Meeting will turn to the town’s capital spending plans tonight.

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