Athol Town Manager says next fiscal year may be the ‘most challenging’ in the last decade

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski.

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-31-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 04-03-2024 3:39 PM


ATHOL – As he prepares to meet with the Selectboard and Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee to present a proposed town budget, Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said fiscal year 2025 “is shaping up to be among the most challenging (fiscal years) during my nearly 10 years in Athol.”

In an interview with the Athol Daily News, Suhoski said he wants residents to understand the factors that will have an effect on the budget. Suhoski will meet with the Selectboard and Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee on Tuesday to present the newest version of the FY25 budget.

“We are working to include, for the vote of the Selectboard, the very public acknowledgment that we need…to ensure we can adequately staff our advanced life support ambulance system, so we’re trying to add an additional paramedic/EMT/firefighter in the budget plan, within the expected revenues,” he said.

Echoing statements he made at the most recent meeting of the Athol Royalston Regional School Committee, Suhoski added that Athol and many small towns throughout Massachusetts are suffering from “financial long COVID.”

The town manager said that different components helped municipalities make it through the pandemic without major financial difficulties.

“We had the (federal) subsidies coming in, we had kind of a breather on health insurance rates; they basically held flat for a couple of years, but now they’re back full force.

“So the challenges we’re facing,” he said, “include health insurance premiums expected to rise 8½%. We have the retirement assessment going up nearly 12%. The existing payroll across the entire town is moving up; that’s $270,000 added to the bottom line.”

He added that residents have seen the cost of goods increase with the growth in inflation, even though this has recently begun to go down.

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“Post-pandemic inflation, supply chain problems – they both kind of merged all at once,” he said.

‘It’s not gloom and doom’

Suhoski said he and his team will have developed some strategies which he will present in summary form at Tuesday’s meeting.

“What’s important for people in Athol to realize,” he said, “is that under the Town Charter we do present the budget, but it’s really the start of the work of the Finance Committee’s overview, and the Selectboard will provide its policy guidance on it, and between us we’ll make sure we have a good sense of the community and come up with a workable document for June for the Annual Town Meeting.”

Suhoski said the process of building the budget continues, adding that he’s hoping for good news when it comes to meals tax receipts, along with cannabis and excise tax revenues for the current quarter.

Suhoski also noted that, according to the state, the number of low-income residents in Athol has decreased, leading to a smaller amount of Chapter 70 state aid to the Athol Royalston Regional School District. The number of English learners and low-income students is one of several factors the state uses to calculate state aid to school districts. The definition of ‘low income’ is based on 185% of the federal poverty level.

“In the end, the school budget calls for roughly a $330,000 increase in Athol’s assessment from last year,” he said. “I count that as another one of those fixed costs; we have to pay the school assessment. At minimum, we’ll have to go up $303,000. As I see it, there’s nothing irresponsible in the school budget.”

Asked if he anticipates any cuts in personnel in the next fiscal year, Suhoski said that he can’t comment on that at this time.

“The approach we’re taking is twofold: One, we want to protect our existing level of services. We don’t want to cut something just to add something new that we don’t currently have,” he said. “But, in this instance, we have a very dire need in the fire and ambulance service to support that; they’re really run ragged, they’re just too busy. So, at this time, we’re trying to make both of those things happen – to maintain services and supplement the staff for fire and ambulance. And I think we’ll find a way to do it.”

In addition to funding one new firefighter in the town budget, Suhoski is hopeful the $286,000 Proposition 2 ½ override on the April 1 Town Election will pass. Those monies would fund the hiring of three additional personnel for the fire department.

“It’s not gloom and doom. It sounds like it is because we’re trying to make a half-million dollars, essentially, as we go through all the department requests,” he said. “But we’ll find a way, just as the town has done since 1762. Things always seem to find a way of working out.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.