Late Monday evening, the Select Board unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2024 recommended budget, advancing the budget through the Town’s public process following extended debates about how to balance municipal and school needs in a tight year. In the final step for approval, Town Meeting must review and vote on the budget next month.
At Monday’s meeting, the Select Board made two last-minute amendments to the proposed budget. Members approved the use of some federal pandemic relief funding for a composting pilot and increased funding to maintain level service for Lexpress, the Town’s hyperlocal transportation system.
The Select Board approved allocating $216,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to finance a composting pilot program, which will cover the $108 cost of Black Earth Compost for 2,000 households for one year. About 1,300 Lexington households currently pay for Black Earth’s services; these families will be eligible to opt into the Town’s program, but they can choose to continue paying for the service in order to allow more first-time composters to take advantage of the pilot.
In addition to furthering zero-waste goals set by Town Meeting, Lexington leaders hope that increased composting can help reduce the Town’s trash costs in the long term. A significant hike in trash and recycling costs created one of the greatest strains on the municipal budget for the next fiscal year. Community members and some local leaders have also been advocating for Lexington to incorporate composting funding into the FY24 budget since last summer.
Select Board members reached a consensus that they preferred to use ARPA money to fund the pilot rather than free cash, or one-time unrestricted revenue available for appropriation. Municipal leaders have worked to phase free cash out of the operating budget, and are prioritizing saving these funds for major anticipated capital expenses like a new or renovated high school with the goal of saving Lexington taxpayers money in the long term. But Lexington educators, who have been negotiating a new contract with the School Committee for nearly a year, have repeatedly asked municipal and school leaders to allocate more funding toward increased compensation and additional support for teachers within the FY24 budget. A few educators reiterated requests that the Select Board make changes to the FY24 budget during Monday’s meeting, including requests that referred specifically to the Town’s savings and free cash. (The School Committee unanimously approved the LPS FY24 budget last week, which is included within the entire Town budget the Select Board approved on Monday. Neither the School Committee nor the Select Board have altered the FY24 budget in response to these educator demands, though the School Committee is separately continuing contract negotiations involving many of the same challenges and demands.)
Select Board Vice Chair Doug Lucente voted in favor of the budget, including the use of ARPA funds for the composting pilot, but expressed reservations about the funding source. The Town received nearly $10 million in ARPA money from the federal government, and has focused its expenditures to date on programs related to housing, food insecurity, public health, economic stimulus and otherwise mitigating pandemic effects. “I think we’re all committed to doing this program – funding is always the difficult part of any new program,” he said on Monday. “This doesn’t really go with our theme of how we’ve used ARPA in the past at all…I’m not super thrilled with this exception, because we’ve turned down a lot of other things saying it’s not appropriate.”
Select Board Chair Jill Hai agreed with Lucente, adding “you could argue very easily that there’s an environmental and health piece to this…but ARPA would not have been my first choice for [funding this program].”
Town Manager Jim Malloy noted that if the board opted to use free cash as the program funding source instead, “we would probably have a discussion or potential debate with the school budget.”
Hai said she was concerned about authorizing free cash to fund the composting pilot after refusing to allocate more free cash toward the school budget.
“It’s not the ideal situation, but then again, we’re not in an ideal budgeting position,” Select Board Member Joe Pato said.
To maintain level service for Lexpress and avoid cutting routes, the Select Board had to approve a transfer of an additional $140,000 from a transportation stabilization fund. Lexpress continues to struggle with reduced ridership as a consequence of the pandemic. A Town committee is in the process of developing recommendations for the future of Lexpress to be incorporated into the FY25 budget.
Participatory budgeting final project list approved
Separate from the Town’s operating and capital budgets, the Select Board previously set aside $500,000 in ARPA funding to allocate toward projects for the public good proposed and chosen by Lexington residents in a process called participatory budgeting.
At Monday’s meeting, Select Board members approved a final list of 13 projects that residents will be able to vote on. “We’re aiming to have the voting open up in the next week or so,” Town Director of Communications and Special Projects Sean Dugan wrote in an email to LexObserver on Thursday. Voting will remain open for about six weeks.
Town staff and Select Board members narrowed down the final list to 13 projects from more than 130 initial resident submissions. Residents can vote on what projects the Town should implement among proposals including a dog park, hands-free bathroom fixtures, bus shelters, conservation land improvements and flashing lights at crosswalks and bike path crossings. Individual estimated project costs range from approximately $10,000 to $265,000, and residents can choose to fund as many projects as they want as long as the total cost does not exceed $500,000. The 13 projects that residents can vote on have a total estimated cost close to $1.3 million, meaning the Town will not be able to fund all of them with the $500,000 in allocated participatory budgeting funds.
Community members will use an online voting tool called Balancing Act to cast votes on the projects, and can indicate their preferred projects in order of priority. Though community members can vote for multiple projects, each community member should only vote once, Dugan wrote.
Voting is open to all ages, he added. “We especially encourage our younger residents to take part and get involved in their local government.”
Community members can learn more about participatory budgeting, and find the link to vote once it’s posted, at LexingtonMA.gov/PB.