The Budget, Night the Second
The lack of brownies should have been a clue it was going to be a long night.
Last night, the RTM held back-to-back meetings to finalize the budget for 2006-2007. Our first meeting was a special hearing to consider the appeal from the Board of Ed, asking to restore $641,000 to the proposed budget.
The Democrats caucused at 6:30 only to discover our counterparts from the other side of the aisle not only met at 6, but also during the week since our last meeting. Later it showed as several came with prepared remarks filled with statistics to show they’d done their homework.
The room was packed in a sea of white with parents and PTA leaders wearing t-shirts begging the RTM to Restore The Money. There were also principals, administrators and the Board. We also had the full Board of Finance along with the Board of Selectmen in attendance so it was jammed, fuller than last year.
The meeting began with a 15 presentation by the Board and Superintendent. We heard the beginning of a mind-numbing set of numbers and statistics that would mark the meeting. What stuck in my mind was that enrollment for next year was already known to exceed last year’s estimates and it’s something like the fifth year in a row that has happened. Immediately, I flashed on the notion that they should have budgeted for many more teachers plus the staff reserve they were begging to retain. Kindergarten enrollment is up for next year before the usual summer bump and 50 high school-eligible students expected to go to one of the private schools, have opted to stay, skewing the numbers. It sounded like they knew already they’d need 5-8 teachers before the reserve so any comments about returning the reserve funds if unspent was just so much rhetoric. We and they knew they’d hire those five teachers, and maybe more.
The Board of Finance had a 15 minute rebuttal and their chairman ran through a well-prepared set of numbers. As a result, they defended their decision for the budget under discussion and veering into the political realm, he made a set of personal comments that looked and sounded like a campaign speech. Whether he wants to run for the Republican nomination for First Selectman next year or not remains unknown but boy, it had the hallmark of a stump speech.
Then the Moderator opened things up for RTM comment. And we commented at length, with close to 20 members speaking. I even got up to point out that last week’s rejection of bonding to buy technology meant the school faced an additional $150,000 cut meaning the total cut was closer to $800,000 and that seemed too steep to me.
The vote was 28-21-2, lacking the two-thirds majority required to pass the appeal. Then the political games began. Anticipating this, one of our members had passed allowing him, under Robert’s Rules, to appeal the vote. It was seconded and then our majority leader called for a caucus. As we huddled, it was clear we’d try and vote as a block to revote and approve the total amount with the promise that at the next meeting we’d vote to lower the total amount of the Board of Ed budget by some $273,000, leaving the appeal with just enough funds for the five reserve teachers and supplies to outfit five classrooms. The minority leader seemed to think he could sell that.
Once more we filed in. After checking the appropriateness of the actions with the Assistant Town Attorney, we debated the appeal and voted in favor. With the appeal on the table, once more we heard from the various Boards and several RTM members. Our Majority Leader made the promise.
We voted and this time it passed 32-15-2. The cheer from the audience was loud and sustained.
Our 7 p.m. meeting ended at 10:15. Our 8 p.m. meeting began at 10:30.
And once we got through the pledge of allegiance, the Republicans called a caucus. All along, we wondered if they had some diabolical plan that had required all the extra meeting time. In theory, any proposed cuts to the budget were to be proposed last week so department heads affected could be present last night to defend the budget.
As the meeting resumed, we heard the proposed final budget numbers. I then took the microphone to propose a three-part-amendment to adjust the numbers as printed on the Call to reflect the $641,880 that had just been approved, an adjustment from the Chief Fiscal Officer to correct a miscalculation, and a reduction of $3000 as requested by the Registrar’s office. During the caucus, a fellow RTMer and I did all the math long-hand because our calculators and cell phone calculators couldn’t handle nine digits. Thankfully, our numbers matched the Chief Fiscal Officer’s own long-hand annotations.
Of course, that passed.
Then, one of the young Republicans got up to suggest we cut $40,000 from the budget, denying a traffic light be replaced at the intersection near the rec center and train station. He argued that with commercial development underway in the area, that might affect the needs for a light. After it was seconded, I then argued that with the rec center and high school traffic already an issue, the area was also going to receive a teen center in the next year or two so we better get the light added now to handle the increased traffic. Our First Selectman then said the police department requested this item based on safety concerns. Many of the other young Republicans got up to speak against the light. Sure enough, the reduction was approved.
With that, the budget was approved. Another agenda item got approved as almost an after-thought and then we were adjourned. Tonight, the Board of Finance will set the mill rate, the cost per $1000 of home valuation that will be the new tax rate. Once people see their bills in July, it will come as a shock once you couple the revaluation with the new taxes even thought the combined town budget was about a 6% increase.
Some final thoughts: the political rhetoric got pretty plain last night. The Board of Finance kept pinning the Board of Ed cuts on the Selectman, everyone else pinned it on the Board of Finance who approved the budget before coming to the RTM. It can be argued that the Republicans made the symbolic traffic light cut to show they were being fiscally responsible on both sides of the budget. The Democrats could argue that the Republicans were against education and public safety. And the citizenry should be shamed for not coming out for the most important meeting of the year. While the parents packed the room to speak for their children, not a single soul came to speak about any other aspect of the budget – either pro or con.
Interestingly, a bi-partisan group gathered at the local watering hole for the traditional “socialable soda”. The Young Republican I wound up disagreeing with twice and I managed a cordial conversation. Spoke with others from across the aisle and away from the heat of the moment, we all sounded far more rational and reasonable than you’d imagine from the public comments.
The second meeting ended about 11:40 and I got home just after 1. A very long evening with much accomplished and much still to do in an effort to make next year’s budget a less onerous process.