The Budget, Night the First
Well, that wasn’t as bad as I expected.
Last night was the RTM meeting when the public got a chance to weigh in on the budget. As in the past, no one came to debate any item on the town side. Clearly, no one cares one way or the other until their tax bill arrives. The room, though, was packed with parents, teachers, principals, Central Office and the Board of Ed. We also had a higher percentage of the Board of Finance in attendance, which makes sense given their fingerprints being on the budget.
As usual, the Democrats caucused at 7 to make sure we knew of any issues or concerns that may turn up on the agenda. We grew concerned when it was learned the Republicans turned up at 6:30 – we thought that meant there’d be a lot of partisanship brought to the agenda. Fortunately, as the night wore on, I was wrong.
Walking to the APR for the meeting, I was amused by the industriousness of one Brownie troop. To raise funds to attend this year’s Jamboree, they set up a station with baked goods and bottled water. Just before the gavel went down, one RTM member bought out a platter of brownies and passed them among the 47 of us.
We approved some appointments (which no one ever challenges) as well as a change in some contract language for one of the unions. So far so good.
We then moved on to the first of several bonding issues for non-recurring capitol projects. This was money for new computers and software for the schools plus some seed money to start a study on replacing the town’s 10 year old management systems, a program no longer supported by the manufacturing. We’re about a year behind on this so I’m glad it was getting done. However, for the last two years, a growing number of RTM members had been objecting to bonding for such items, since we spend about the same amount on these items every year. After lengthy debate, it got voted down, not because the RTM didn’t want to improve technology, but to show its displeasure to the budget makers that their objections had been ignored for too long. Now the scramble begins to find a way to actually buy the computers.
On the other hand, the next bond issue for things like new high school bleachers and a fire truck passed with much less debate and rancor.
We then tackled reallocating unspent bonding authority from two now completed school projects to allow a third school building to get a much needed new playing field. At caucus we were alerted to possible Republican concerns but fortunately they weren’t aired.
Then came the Tax Liens. For the first time since 1996, the town had decided to sell the liens on some 40 properties that owed over $10,000 and were more than a year delinquent. Apparently, the town felt enough was enough and it was time to clean the rolls and put some money back in the coffers. At the discussion portion, we learned that some of these properties owed taxes going back 7-8-9-10 years. The Republicans wanted a 90 day delay so we spent a lot of time debating the amendment. Frankly, after waiting six or seven years, I doubted 90 days was going to change anything. Everyone spoke about foreclosing on seniors and other horrible scenarios but it had been made clear each owner had been contacted repeatedly, social services were involved as necessary and it was time to act. The amendment was shot down and then the sale of the liens was narrowly approved with voting along party lines. Honestly, this is a non-partisan matter so I was surprised that this was the first real show of political muscle.
Finally, we came to the budget for both the town and schools. The Board of Ed had formally appealed $641,000 be restored out of a $2.6 million budget cut and that would be commented on last night but voted on at a special meeting next Monday. Each committee had to get up and give a report on the portion of the budget under their purview. Since I played acting secretary at the last meeting, I wound up speaking throughout the night, reporting on our discussions. Here, I finally cracked wise commenting we got the more interesting parts of the budget like the Assessors office, and I got a good chuckle out of that.
Anyway, after all the presentations we got into the comments, first from the body, then the town officials and finally the public. I’ll make it clear: no one was out to cut the budget; no one was out to hurt programs or affect the students. The key question seemed to be, was the $641,000 truly necessary or was there further fat to cut from the school budget to afford the appealed items? Just before we began, I buttonholed the Superintendent to confirm that the Special Ed and Gifted Student items on the appeal were not the only programs for those students. She confirmed that these were extras so Special Ed and Gifted students would be fine.
I’ll admit I walked in waffling on the issue. I think the Board budget has fat in it, I suspect they’re top heavy on administrators and they could absorb this cut. On the other hand, looking at how much of the budget was taken up with salaries, insurance, utilities and the like, I saw how little there was for the programs. The debate back and forth didn’t sway me and by the time the night ended, I still wasn’t sure.
As the parents spoke, we heard the same litany of appeals and arguments we heard at last year’s budget meeting as well as at last week’s committee hearing. Then came the One Parent. I saw it last year, the One Parent who will stand there and bare their soul with a very personal appeal on behalf of their child. In both cases, it was a child with Special Ed needs. The eloquence and raw emotion cut through the nonsense and made as compelling case as you could ask for. This mom was followed by the most passionate of the PTA leaders and you think this is the kind of guy you want as a teacher in all your kid’s classes. He was terrific.
When the final words were spoken, we were left with food for thought. Next week, we’ll handle the appeal at 7 and the final budget at 8. Meantime, the night wrapped around 11:45 and then a bi-partisan sub-committee reconvened to the Bear & Grill for a “socialable soda”. There, we decompressed for an hour or so and it was great having a chance to review what we heard and what we thought and learn a bit more about each other.
While next week shouldn’t be as long, I suspect it will be a bit more contentious. And no doubt, the lobbying e-mails, letters and phone calls will continue.