WINCHESTER — The purse strings have been officially loosened, and the town of Winchester can now spend the money its voters approved.
A letter from the Department of Revenue Administration read aloud at Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting said the state agency would comply with a court order to allow the town to spend the nearly $3.9 million of its spending plan. This includes every warrant article voters approved earlier this year.
The department had disallowed $418,956 of the town’s plan this year because its spending limit was exceeded when appropriations for the water and sewer departments were added in after a budget deadline.
The response comes after a long wait. The court’s decision was announced at the June 27 selectmen’s meeting, the day after Town Administrator Joan C. Morel sent a letter to the department notifying it of the court’s decision.
Selectmen Chairwoman Roberta Fraser said after the June meeting that agency officials had assured the town they would comply, but the three-week wait for those assurances appears to have caused some trepidation among board members.
While waiting for the department’s response, selectmen voted on July 11 to curtail town purchases. They also refrained from signing an agreement for services for the ELMM Community Center or paying it the money voters had approved. Any checks the board had written for expenses approved in warrant articles, in anticipation of the state’s response, were locked up in the safe.
Morel said that after Wednesday’s meeting the board has returned to its regular purchasing policies, and the contract with the center has been signed. The board also approved sending out the checks for money appropriated in warrant articles.
The state department’s director of municipal services, Barbara J. Robinson, wrote that the delay was due to the “highly unusual circumstance.”
The town’s budget crisis was the result of a dispute between the town’s selectmen and budget committee over water and sewer department funding.
When selectmen removed the departments’ funding from the town operating budget and introduced the spending as separate warrant articles, the committee recommended not funding them. Then-committee Chairman Brian D. Moser said this had been a form of protest against the selectmen’s move.
Because Winchester is an official-ballot town with a municipal budget committee, the Department of Revenue Administration establishes a limit to the amount its voters can approve: adding 10 percent to the budget committee’s recommendation.
The committee soon changed its recommendation to include $537,802 for water and sewer, but the state department used the panel’s earlier recommendations, and the original zero-dollar amount was binding. With more than half a million dollars in water and sewer funding missing from the equation, the spending limit was lowered dramatically — to $418,956 below what voters approved.
As a result, the department reconciled the difference by cutting funding for all of the town’s warrant articles — except the water and sewer departments, whose funding was allowed because it’s vital to town operations — as well as more than $170,000 from the operating budget.
Some of the warrant articles include $50,000 for the ELMM Community Center, $28,000 for the Evergreen Cemetery Care Fund, $56,000 for the police youth aid officer and $50,000 for the Conant Library maintenance and repair fund.
This caused selectmen to take legal action against the budget committee. Their dispute was resolved with a consent decree in which the board and committee say neither actually intended the original zero-dollar appropriation to be the official recommendation.
Cheshire County Superior Court Judge William J. Groff signed the decree on June 21 and ordered the spending limit be recalculated to just over $4 million.
The budget incident did have some lasting effects. Because of the uncertainty surrounding its funding, the ELMM center had to scale back its summer programs by cutting the entire adventure program and also removing the weekly field trips from its day camp.Garrett Brnger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or firstname.lastname@example.org.