WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is already $10,000 overspent in the legal budget and the Finance Committee transferred what is left of the reserve funds on Thursday to finish out the year.
The town budgeted $20,000 for legal services but three stints in court with the owners of the Spruces Mobile Home Park and drafting a lease agreement between the Elementary School and the Youth Center put it over the edge. So far, $30,817 has been spent and Town Manager Peter Fohlin said he has put a halt on any legal work.
"We're going to be so close that we're going to have to watch the expenses like a hawk," Fohlin said.
The biggest hit to the legal budget is the pending lawsuit between Morgan Management, the town and the state after Hurricane Irene. That lawsuit was filed with the town as a party in hopes to sort out responsibility for the park's future. The town has spent $11,707 defending itself and the case is currently continued until April 17, when even more charges could add up.
Morgan Management also fought with the town in the courts on two occasions with the Mobile Home Rent Control Board. A total of $6,475 was spent defending those cases.
An additional $3,000 was spent crafting a lease between the Youth Center and the Elementary School. The Youth Center is set to build a new building on the school's land and requested the town to craft the lease. The officials still need to finalize the lease.
The Finance Committee transferred the remaining $15,000 in the reserve fund to finish out the year. The town still needs legal counsel to look over the warrant for town meeting. If there is anything remaining then, Fohlin said he will start picking at legal issues that are being neglected now.
"We're not even doing the things we are supposed to be doing," Fohlin said of the halt on legal work.
Officials fear that even the $15,000 may not be enough. If that happens, the town will either have to find the money in other budget lines or have a special town meeting article to pay for the legal fees in next year's budget, Fohlin said.
The reserve fund already took hits this year in regard to veteran's services. Veteran's services is expected to be overspent by about $40,000 and the Finance Committee has already transferred enough to cover that shortfall. That line was budgeted at about $35,000 but expenses are expected to be about $74,000.
Fohlin said in March that veterans services were slightly less than expected but that doesn't mean that the town is in the clear. There is still a chance that line could be overspent and would also require an additional appropriation in next year's budget.
"We just have to cross our fingers and whistle while we pass the graveyard," Fohlin said.
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Editor: I think you may have misunderstood that quote. They were sued and had to spend more than they expected. They went into reserves to pay for it and now they have to cross their fingers and hope that nothing happens or else they'll have to take on debt. - Andy McKeever.
OK, well you do realize that if Williamstown overspent their budget that means the town accountant committed an illegal act and I also believe Mass DOR will penalize free cash for this. So its actually a pretty big deal.
Send a bill to the youth center for that 3K - or - deduct it from the massive gift the town gives them every year. Seeing as the youth center gets free use of town owned land the least they can do is pay the legal fees associated with that sweetheart deal.
The Town has a legal bill for the Elementary School's legal fees that are a part of the arrangement (voted and approved by Town Meeting) between the Town and the Youth Center. Each side pay's their fees so that there is not a conflict of interest caused by say a sole joint lawyer favoring one party over the other. Each side entered into this agreement because each side saw a mutual benefit and under our mode of law, each side usually takes the position that a different lawyer represents their interestís even in a friendly engagement. Remember, this lease was decided by Town Meeting and by the Board of the Youth Center separately once the deal was set forth to all parties. We are just picking up our tab, and frankly $3000 is not an excessive charge.
A budget is merely a budget. Town Meeting authorizes the particular entity to spend dollars based upon information in a budget, and if expenditures exceed budget - Town Meeting will decide to spend more or not through a regular town meeting or a special one. If Town Meeting says "No!" - further expenditures over reserves cannot be made (unless the State gets involved and orders it so). No one could have foreseen Irene, although the Town has known for a long time the park would flood. The Town has never chosen to allocated current monies for a possible legal action due to a flood in the future. As such it must now request those funds should the legal fees go above what the Town has set as a best guess on known immediate issues and reserves.
The real question to ask might be is if the budget is big enough to fund what one could reasonably foresee at this moment. Mr. Fohlin and the Selectmen are only requesting what reasonable people would ask for in taxes to support a budget that obviously can't account for all possible scenarios or outcomes in life. If the citizens are taxed for things that may not occur, then they are excessively taxed in the "now". No one would borrow money now for unseen things, anymore than one would tax for unseen things. That said, Mr. Fohlin and the selectmen might want to set aside more for the next fiscal year in addition to any money that needs returning to free cash - based on what has passed and what they reasonably see as happening now.
Nothing sinister is going on here. You will see the Finance Committee weighing in on favor of these issues. They are merely an advisory board.
If the reserve had enough set aside from the town meeting vote to fund the legal costs then OK. Of course I'm assuming town meeting voted on the reserve for a sufficient amount.
A budget is just a budget, if you own your own business you can change it at whim. With a town a budget is a different matter, town meeting votes they authorize the budget once they do it's a legally binding agreement, reserve transfers allowed and all. The only budget item you can overspend on is snow and ice and thats about it.
If you want to spend one dollar over budget beyond what reserve transfers can cover you need a special town meeting to vote and authorize it period.
Wait a minute! Why focus on the Youth Center? Morgan Management's lawsuit against the Mobile Home board because it refused a rent hike--and we all know the terrible state of the park before Irene--cost more than double what the Youth Center due diligence caused. Not to mention another suit after Irene. If MM spent as much money on the park as they do on suing the town, we would all be better off. Let's hope they leave town so someone can address low cost housing without being harassed.
I would suggest that the reporter learn more about municipal budgets if he is to report on them. They did over spend the budgeted amount for legal expenses. Under State law this is illegal and the bill should not have been paid if their was not enough money in the account. It should have gone to the Finance Comm for their approval once the budgeted amount had been exhausted, not after the fact. Not good is correct. Also did you forget to ask who the legal fees were being paid to? Another question, why is the town paying a legal bill for the School Department?