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Hines Sight / Shame on us for intolerant, ignorant Fairfield budget debate

Published 7:14 am, Saturday, May 10, 2014
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Every year in May, we have the same argument.

Every year in May, young and old are pitted against each other.

And with each year, we become more divided as a community. We all are to blame, including commentators like me.

Monday's Representative Town Meeting budget adoption session is the prime example and the culmination of many months of bitterness. What I observed and read preceding and including the meeting was disheartening.

There has been a lot of bad behavior -- intolerance, ignorance, rumor mongering, name calling, secretiveness and, of course, anger.

First of all, could the town have chosen a poorer venue for the meeting? It certainly didn't help an already-tense situation. It was warm in the small gym at Fairfield Warde High School, the sound system was awful and the chairs were uncomfortable -- and the bleachers were worse for those forced to sit on them.

That aside, the room was a convention of young families -- who amassed prior to the meeting to "rally to support education," according to a Facebook page that urged parents to gather outside Warde in an effort to keep the school budget increase from being further reduced. Many of them, including their kids, were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slash-through-a-circle "no" symbol with "education cuts" in its center.

The Facebook page warned that "vocal activists in town and some RTM members want to cut the town budget by $2.3 million." Of course, there was no proof anywhere that was the case. But who could blame the organizers from thinking so?

RTM members were unusually mum in the weeks prior about if and/or by how much any of them was considering reducing the budget increase. In previous years, RTM members were quick to voice their intentions and gave residents an idea at the public hearing the week before. But not this year.

The only thing the secretiveness did was prompt rumors -- and bad blood. Is this the way we want public discourse to be handled? RTM members -- the legislators of our community -- must do better next year.

At the meeting itself, I was embarrassed for my town, a place I've called home for nearly 30 years and where I have deep family roots.

The evening began with a motion to cut $500,000 from the proposed school budget increase. The overriding message to RTM members from the majority of school budget supporters was, essentially, don't hurt the kids and don't be swayed by those who don't have kids in the school system (read: senior citizens). When the educational system is harmed, so are we all, they said. (By the way, these are the same people who brought their children to the meeting, and not necessarily to give them an education on the governmental process. I saw plenty of tired kids, including one child who appeared fast asleep.)

I respect the parents' position, but I don't have to agree with it. Neither side seemed, nor wanted, to respect the other's opinion. One school budget supporter even referred to the other side as "bullies." Really? And some of those who favored cutting the budget increase misrepresented facts or became intensely angry. I saw a lot of head shaking and heard groaning when someone's view didn't match theirs.

What results is a fostering of bad feelings and a mistrust of others. We can do better.

In the end, the municipal budget increase -- for both town and school operations -- was reduced by $1,653,044, putting the tax increase for 2014-15 under 2 percent. One RTM member estimated that the reduction would mean a savings of less than $50 for the average taxpayer.

Of course, I'd rather have $50 in my pocket than in someone else's. But is it worth it, considering all the unpleasantness to get to this point?

Unless our town and school leaders make fair, across-the-board cuts to salaries and benefits or reduce the workforce, we will continue to be deeply divided on spending.

I, for one, am tired of it.

Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed @patricia_hines on Twitter.