RTM votes to restore $350K Pequot Library cut, but another battle looms
Updated 7:29 am, Wednesday, April 24, 2013
A $350,000 town allocation for the Pequot Library was restored to the proposed 2013-14 budget with overwhelming Representative Town Meeting support Monday night, but that may not be the final chapter in the funding drama for the privately run Southport institution.
Although the legislative body, on a 43-4 vote, restored the full amount cut this month by the Board of Finance, RTM Minority Leader Hal Schwartz, D-7, warned that he plans to propose that allocation be reduced by $100,000 at the May 6 budget meeting.
Schwartz, as well as several other RTM members, said his Monday vote in support of restoring the full $350,000 reflected his opinion that the process whereby the money was entirely eliminated from the budget was unfair. The library's officials learned only 24 hours prior to the Board of Finance's vote that it could lose its funding.
Although a "public association" library run by a private board of trustees, the Pequot has for decades received funding from the town toward its annual budget and has traditionally closely collaborated on programs with the Fairfield Public Library branches. Executive Director Martha Lord said the $350,000 is one-third of the Pequot's annual operating budget and without it, the library would likely have to close its doors.
More than 150 people packed the special RTM appeals hearing Monday to support restoration of the funds prior to the May budget meeting on the budget that takes effect July 1. Many carried signs signaling their support for the library and were vocal in that support, loudly applauding when speakers spoke in favor of the restoration and booing after Board of Finance Vice Chairman Robert Bellitto Jr. explained why he was one of five finance board members who voted to eliminate the $350,000.
"We cut $1.25 million from the Board of Education budget," Bellitto said. "We did not fund additional officers to keep our schools and our town safer. We did not fund a full-time director for our Senior Center. We upheld the $500,000 cut to our paving program. We made deep cuts to the public works, IT and library budgets."
He said while no one wants to see the Pequot Library close, he added that in his view there has been no concrete evidence that the funding cut would cause it to close.
A power-point presentation by the library indicated the loss of the money would mean cuts to programs, fundraising and hours, which would result in lower donations, beginning a "self-reinforcing downward spiral."
"I appreciate both sides," said John Mitola, D-2, adding that he struggled with voting to restore $350,000 when RTM members will be proposing cuts to other areas of the budget.
David Becker, R-1, whose district includes the Pequot Library, said he holds a core belief in the role that nonprofits help to keep municipal costs down, and voiced frustration that a subcommittee that was charged with determining how, and which nonprofits should receive town money, has not finished its task.
"We are a very large community," Becker said. "We are a three-library town. ... This is not a charity, it is a nonprofit partner."
Senior Center cut upheld; counseling money restored
The Pequot Library funding wasn't the only appeal on the Monday agenda.
The RTM denied an appeal to restore $53,261 to fund the salary and benefits for six months of a director for the Fairfield Senior Center, but approved restoring $8,750 for Fairfield Counseling Services, the only other nonprofit whose funding was cut by the finance board.
Theresa Giegengack, director of the town Human and Social Services Department, and members of the Human Services Commission, attempted to persuade the legislative body to restore the money for the Senior Center director. Without the dedicated director, Giegengack must split her time between her role as department head and director of the center.
The vote on the senior center money was 22 in favor of the restoration and 26 against.
"I fully support restoring this," said Peter Ambrose, R-2. "I think we owe it to our seniors."
Becker said with the town's growing senior population, "we have to look at a more comprehensive approach."
Finance Board Chairman Thomas Flynn said the board was unanimous in its decision to funding for the director's post. "These were tough choices that needed to be made," he said.
Restoration of the Fairfield Counseling Center money was approved by a 34-14 vote. About 63 percent of the services provided by the center are for town residents, while only 22 percent of its funding comes from the town, center officials said.
The center had requested $175,000, but the finance board cut it to $166,250.
"These are people who can't do a power-point presentation, or an online campaign to get the town behind them," Schwartz said.
Ken Lee, D-10, said those taking advantage of the counseling center do so because they can't afford private mental health support. He referenced a statement made during the Pequot Library debate that the town is "one Fairfield" and said the town has as much responsibility to those with the least, as it does to those with the most.
But Gaylord Meyer, R-1, one of the 14 members voting against the funding, wanted to know where those clients who were not Fairfield residents came from. She was told clients come from many different communities. At the Pequot Library, a board was set up to let its supporters list their ZIP codes, which also include many ZIP codes outside of Fairfield.
Deputy Police Chief Christopher Lyddy, who sits on the counseling center's board of directors, said from a law-enforcement perspective, it is not a charity, "it is our mental health component."
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