$500K cut from school spending in marathon RTM budget session
After a 9-hour marathon session, punctuated by flaring tempers and heated debate, the Representative Town Meeting early Tuesday approved a nearly $285 million municipal spending package for 2014-15 that trims the projected tax increase to just under 2 percent.
The RTM's annual budget meeting got underway at 6:30 p.m. Monday as members of the legislative body staged party caucuses and school budget supporters rallied outside Fairfield Warde High School. It ended about 3:15 a.m. Tuesday with the tax rate trimmed from 2.38 percent to 1.96 percent for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
The sometimes-raucous session at one point prompted RTM Moderator Mary McCullough to warn the audience she would clear the Warde gym if spectators continued to clap in support of speakers.
The largest cut to the budget was a $500,000 reduction to the Board of Education's $156 million spending plan, an amendment that entailed several hours of discussion by RTM members and residents.
The pro-education budget rally, organized by the PTA Council, drew about 60 people, many wearing tee shirts urging "no cuts" and carrying placards urging support for the full school budget.
The overall 2014-15 budget was reduced from $286,615,682 to $284,962,638 by the end of the meeting, and saves the average taxpayer, according to Minority Leader Hal Schwartz, D-7, a bit less than $43 on their tax bill.
Joseph Palmer, R-4, calling himself a supporter of the school district, made the motion to cut the school budget. "I believe it is critical to trim back the Board of Ed budget as much as possible," he said.
"I'll be supporting that cut," said John Donovan, R-1. "I believe it's really important to hold the line on budget growth."
But Democrats argued such a cut not only would hurt the town's students, but all local taxpayers because a lack of support for the public schools would have a detrimental impact on property values.
Superintendent of Schools David Title said it would be up to the school board to decide where the reductions in spending would actually be made as a result of the $500,000 cut, but said it would likely be in areas of maintenance and technology.
"We have a tax problem in this town," said David MacKenzie, R-3, who added that potential home buyers are turning to other towns because of Fairfield's tax rate.
Jay Lipp, R-1, said RTM members needed to take into consideration the students, but also those in town who are unemployed, or underemployed, or have a fixed income. "I believe that almost everyone knows someone who can't afford the increase to their taxes," he said.
Like several other speakers, Schwartz pointed out that about two-thirds of the roughly 2,000 emails received by RTM members urged them to adopt the budget without further cuts. He also said while other towns may have lower tax rates, their properties are considerably more expensive and generate higher revenues.
Asked to name areas in the education budget where he would recommend the school board cut $500,000, Palmer said he would leave that to Title.
"I'm disappointed in the lack of specifics," Kevin Hoffkins, D-7, said. Palmer said the RTM is "not allowed" to look at any line-item cuts in the school budget. Under state statute, the RTM cannot cut specific line items, but is not prohibited from making such recommendations.
Title displayed a flash of irritation after several GOP members said that he is the one with the expertise to make those spending decisions, noting that for the past six months some of them insinuated he's mismanaged finances and doesn't know how to plan. "Now, all of a sudden, I'm a genius," he said.
The majority of people who spoke about the school budget urged the RTM to reject a reduction in spending, but some, like Virginia Sanford, said while taxes are going up, "town services are not that great. We didn't come here for the education, it's not that great ... My taxes are more than I paid for my house."
Sanford is 25 percent owner, with Sanford Investments, LLC, of 29.49 acres on Hillside Road, which is assessed at less than 70 percent of its appraised value of $8.8 million because it is classified as farm, forest or open space. It is the site of a 6,571-square-foot home, along with a 3,168-square-foot Cape, a green house, in-ground pool and barn. It is assessed at $4.3 million.
The $500,000 cut in education spending was approved by a 27-22 vote, with some GOP members siding with Democrats in opposing the cut.
Another cut that drew public opposition was a $75,000 reduction in library materials.
"We talked about unemployed people," said Jay Wolk, D-6. "The unemployed use the library to find a job. How could we even fathom cutting the budget? The seniors use the library, the seniors need the library."
Jennifer Hochberg, D-7, said the libraries benefit all the town residents, "from babies to seniors to everyone in between."
That cut was approved by a 27-19 margin, and as with all the votes that night, some Republican members crossed over and voted "no" against their party's majority position.
The RTM also voted to cut $250,000 from the Department of Public Works paving account despite promises made several years ago that enough funding would be allocated to bring road-paving schedules up-to-date in exchange for no longer approving bonds to pay for paving.
"It was this body that took it out of bonding," said Jeffrey Steele, R-2. "We had a spending plan in place, I don't think I want to kick the can down the road. This body fought so hard to do this."
Wolk said the town either pays for paving and maintaining roads now, "or we pay for it later."
Other cuts included $50,000 from legal services, $125,000 from contingency for the next property revaluation, $38,000 from information technology, and $15,234 for a part-time nurse's assistant position in the Health Department.
An attempt to cut $70,000 from the Police Department for two new cars failed by a 23-23 tie vote.