In what could be called Westford’s informal “Summer Town Meeting”, nearly 100 town staff members, local government officials and Westford residents gathered at for the Second Annual Westford Strategic Planning Retreat.
Built as an informal brainstorming session for those interested in shaping town policy, the event brought disparate portions of Westford government together to share ideas and information and to help increase awareness and think of solutions for issues that impact the town.
The event began with a questionnaire session dominated by one of the primary issues facing Westford: the current expected $2.4 million shortfall for Fiscal Year 2014.
Town Manager Jodi Ross began by and using it to build upon strides the town has made to make up the upcoming budget deficit and help solve the Fiscal Year 2013 shortfall
These efforts such as getting 11 out of 12 town unions to forego a cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase for Fiscal Year 2013, something she stated had not been done for 31 years in Westford, and a directive from the Selectmen to engage in multi-year fiscal planning forecasts moving forward.
However, local resident Rob Creegan voiced his concerns on this point, saying the town’s fiscal issues were a matter that should be projected for the next 20 years, not just the next three or four, and that continual override votes would not be a feasible solution if no other revenue sources were found, particularly in regard to rising school budget costs.
“You cannot have a budget rising faster than residents’ income,” said Creegan. “You can’t raise money from people that don’t have it.”
Superintendent Bill Olsen replied that the rise in school budgets were due in large part to new mandates placed upon the department by state and federal regulations along with the fact that enrollment has doubled over the past 20 years.
“We don’t look for ways to spend money, but we have students coming into town that cost $200,000 a year, and we’re obligated, as we should be, to educate them,” said Olsen.
Olsen went on to tell the audience that despite budgetary concerns, Westford retains one of the lowest cost-per-pupil averages in the state while remaining in the upper echelon when it comes to test scores, something that local resident Rose O’Donnell also commented on.
“I don’t see a 2 to 3 percent increase a year to be a problem,” said O’Donnell, who recently stepped down from the town Finance Committee. “It’s not to say that the people who come here don’t come for the Police Department or the Fire Department, but I think a lot of people come to Westford for the schools.”
Ross went on to joke that she came to Westford for the roads, which had doubled since 1970 without any employee increases in the Highway Department or any significant deterioration in road quality.
Other topics, such as potential regionalization of services, were discussed among the full crowd before dinner and a split into break-out sessions discussing , , and public works initiatives.
Although the near triple digit temperatures could not generate a crowd much larger than last year’s rainy day affair, Ross was pleased with the event as a whole, and thinks improvements can be made for next year’s retreat.
“I definitely think (this event) has meaning for (town officials) in terms of educating the public and them educating us in terms of what their concerns are,” said Ross, who also noted that this year's event had more residents not currently serving on town government boards.
More information on the event is available on the Town of Westford’s Strategic Planning Retreat webpage.