On Monday night, after a very difficult and sometimes tense months-long debate that included the possibility of closing one or more schools, and proposed large cuts to some popular services like the library and animal control, Republican members of the Town Council with an assist from Republican Mayor John Harkins passed a town budget that will raise overall taxes about 2.5% in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
However, even as members praised both sides, Democrats and Republicans, for their efforts, most council members including those who voted in favor of the new budget plan held their figurative noses closed while doing so.
After more than 20 speakers had their say in the Public Forum that precedes every Town Council meeting, members got down to the business of passing the budget.
Defending the council as a whole while distancing himself from the budget package itself, Councilman Matthew Catalano spoke out. “I want to make on thing clear. There has been bipartisanship” in the creation of the new budget, despite the Democrats voting against the GOP’s amended version of Mayor John Harkins’ original proposal.
“The people sitting up here have spent many, many hours of their time crunching these numbers trying to do what’s right for the town,” Catalano said. “As distasteful as it is, we’ve done our best.
“We gave credence to the people who spoke” at public hearings and at council public sessions, the majority of whom spoke in favor of restoring school funding, proceeding with school renovations, keeping all schools open, and restoring funding to the library and animal control. “We listened and did the best we can, and I’m convinced we’re starting to move [the town budget] in the right direction.
“Nobody up here wants to raise taxes and if I could cut the mill rate by five, then I would do it,” Catalano said. “But it’s not gonna happen.”
One area that the majority GOP council members could not touch, they believe, were the line item overtime expenditure projections.
“All of us are against overtime,” said Councilman James Connors. “But it was negotiated by a previous administration and we can’t just unilaterally change a contract.”
Alluding to the alternative budget proposed by the Democrats that cut overtime line items as well as restoring funding to the library, animal control and several town positions cut in the GOP plan, Connor said simply, “The Democratic proposal is a case where if we don’t pay now, then we pay later.”
On overtime, Catalano said that if the town loses a current arbitration case “then there’s an issue for referendum and I would support that.
Referring to criticism of high costs for town legal services, Connor said, “There are a bunch of lawsuits going back a lot of years.” Ironically, Connor joined Democrats in voting “no” to the budget, saying more could have been done to cut spending and therefore taxes.
It was GOP Councilman Paul Hoydick who actually started the ball rolling when the ordinance proposing the town budget came up for debate after the public session.
Hoydick was recognized by Town Council Chairman Thomas Malloy and then proceeded to offer a “friendly amendment” to the mayor’s original $189,780,768 plan where he proposed putting additional state funds into the revenue side of the ledger, while also offering to restore funding back to the library and animal control department that will allow the rehiring back of a third animal control officer.
Hoydick added, “Both parties put a lot of time” into the budget deliberations this year. “It is a responsible and fair budget,” he continued, while acknowledging that “during the last couple of months there has been a fair amount of anxiety” among officials and residents.
On that point, Democrats agreed, while still promoting their plan. Councilman David Fuller contrasted the Democratic proposal as an alternate “road map” in what is admittedly “very difficult and dire economic times.” During tough times, “difficult sacrifices must be made and were made.” He urged his fellow council members to continue the process of redirecting town government. “Let’s stand by what we say and mean what we say.”
Councilman Jason Santi, who also voted no to the GOP budget that passed after the mayor broke the initial 5-5 budget deadlock, bemoaned the loss of services in the GOP plan, particularly workers in public works and specifically tree maintenance services. “In hindsight, I do commend the other side for restoring some services,” while characterizing the public works job cuts as “tough to stomach.”
GOP Councilman Christian Barnaby then jumped on Santi’s contention, tactfully.
“While drafting the budget, we took into consideration everyone who spoke,” Bernaby said. “We don’t sit up here and serve ourselves.
“We created a budget that saves schools, helps the library, doesn’t cut services to seniors and reinstates service to the animal control facility.
“By and large, these were the issues that concerned most.”
What about the tax increase? “Taxes increased, of course, which is a concern,” Barnaby said. “But what we did was reduce the increase and save services.”
And “the library and education are far more valuable than tree cutting,” he continued. “When skeptics and critics come up and say that they want services funded but they don’t want taxes to increase, that’s obviously difficult. If you pay for one, you take from another and contractural obligations make us do what we do.”
Barnaby noted that the town must pass a responsible budget in order to retain its favorable bonding house ratings. “We tried to figure out ways to save beyond contractural agreements. I challenged everybody to come up with ideas.
“… and some people said the mayor hasn’t been doing enough to change the direction” of higher and higher budgets with no end in sight, “and I disagree.
The mayor is negotiating with several unions now, Barnaby noted. “But these things don’t happen overnight and we are going to have to wait for the process” to play out before results can be realized on the town’s bottom line.
“We were dealt with this hand and we’re dealing with it,” he said.
“It’s one thing to talk about how great a tax decrease would be. But it’s another thing to do something about it.
“I will vote for the budget tonight because it limits the tax increase rate but also keeps services that people want,” Barnaby said.
Democrat Kimberly Meuse politely begged to differ. “Last year we cut 12 employees in public works,” she said, but the result since then has been that she “has had to explain to constituents why it takes longer to get things done.
“I am disappointed to see layoffs in this budget,” she continued, adding it is more a matter of wills than necessity, in her opinion. “We you want to save jobs, you do,” like was proposed in the Democratic alternative budget. Similarly, she added, “when you want to save schools, you do.”
The official spokesperson for the minority budget was Stephanie Philips. About halfway into her rationalization, Chairman Malloy attempted to cut off her lengthy discourse on the grounds that a GOP motion was on the table to pass the amended budget and that Philips’ remarks were not germane. After Malloy sought the technical legal support of Town Attorney Tim Bishop on the point, which was not forthcoming, Phillips was allowed to continue.
She refuted the notion that there needed to be a large tax increase in the face of nearly $2 million in additional state revenues over originally budgeted by the mayor. “We felt very strongly that if there was to be a tax increase then the public should not have to sacrifice any services.
“It was not in our mind to say that one [type of] service was more important than another.”
She was critical of using bond funding for regular town services that should be funded within the budget, a subject that may gain traction at future meeting after a development later in the meeting when the council was asked to approve a larger bond authorization than originally expected.
Philips then touted the Democrats plan that would raise the average tax bill by $162 versus the mayor’s original proposal of $308 in average increase.
She was also critical of position cuts, including those in the assessor’s office, a nurse, highway superintendent and library funding. “We believe we can restore services without layoffs,” noting that Democrats signed off on the mayor’s 2010-2011 current budget that included layoffs this fiscal year.
Catalano responded to Philips by saying, “It all sounds good, to put it all back.
“But it’s budgeting a deficit, which is why we are in this mess today.
“If we know overtime is going to be $1 million, which is disgusting, I agree. But we have to fund it.
“You can’t make up all those positions by underfunding things we are obligated to pay. It’s irresponsible,” Catalano continued. “The Republicans have crafted a budget that is responsible,” noting, too, that the mayor is currently working with town unions in an effort to address overtime, pension, sick pay, vacation and related issues.
“Some of these things are going to take a little time to come to fruition.”
While both Santi and Meuse respectfully disagreed, GOP Councilman John Dempsey had the last word, almost literally, before the budget vote was taken. “It’s a realistic budget,” Dempsey said.