Hines Sight / Sacrifice, no matter how you look at it
Sacrifice. That's the most appropriate word that describes the tone and outcome at Monday night's Representative Town Meeting budget-adoption session.
Of course, the meaning of "sacrifice" depends on one's perspective. For the 22 RTM members who voted to reduce the size of the increase in the 2011-12 education budget by $800,000, it means spreading around the pain of tightening belts. For the 20 RTM members who voted against the cut -- and for most of an audience made up largely of parents and public schools staff -- it means weakening the education Fairfield children get.
The evening began with Republican Carolyn Richmond motioning to reduce the recommended $146.5 million school budget by $1.2 million. (By the way, the Board of Education's approved budget was trimmed $2 million by the Board of Selectmen -- a decrease supported by the Board of Finance.)
Immediately following Richmond was Republican Mary McCullough, who asked for a "friendly amendment," requesting instead an $800,000 reduction, to which Richmond agreed. That went fairly smoothly, almost like it was rehearsed -- or at least talked about prior to the meeting.
A lengthy discussion ensued -- first RTM members, then the public, which overwhelmingly were parents who worry about their kids' futures. Some of the others were ordinary taxpayers, undoubtedly without kids in the schools, who worried that our older residents won't be able to afford to live here any longer.
It's not just the older population that is finding it increasingly difficult to stay in town. There are people, like me, who are single-income households trying to hang on. Yes, I made the decision two years ago to leave my full-time job and a steady paycheck and try to make a living as a free-lance writer and editor. I work steadily, but I shouldn't have to worry 24/7 whether I will be able to keep my house, let alone trying to pay my real estate taxes. While not the popular stance -- based on who attended Monday's session -- I am grateful that my elected town leaders are taking into consideration people like me as well as senior citizens. Oh, that latter group of people is the one that built just about everything we enjoy here in Fairfield. What separates them from people like me is that they, thankfully, benefit from the senior tax relief program. I, on the other hand, have to make sacrifices in my daily living.
Only the Board of Education can decide how to accommodate a $2.8 million reduction in their budget request. But that didn't stop some RTM members from offering up "adjustments." Reducing the number of paraprofessionals, instructional aides, curriculum leaders and psychologists and rethinking the delivery of music education were among the ideas suggested by RTM members.
Schools Superintendent David Title was asked to provide his estimation on how to work with $2.8 million less than requested. The upshot of his presentation was that there is "no magic wand" to wave over the process facing the central school office and the board in the next few months. Any reduction in staff or programs will harm the solid education Fairfield kids have received thus far.
I, for one, was glad to hear that when Title crafted the 2011-12 budget, he started at zero and worked up from there. That's a different approach than past practices.
His final thought on how to accommodate the reduction, he said, undoubtedly would be made by cutting staff -- possibly 30 or more positions.
After the vote on the education budget, the McKinley School all-purpose room emptied of parents and school staff, and the RTM got down to trimming the proposed town-side package. By midnight, the fatigued RTM and remaining audience members adjourned to Tuesday night -- too late for my deadline. Suffice to say that the proposed cuts to be discussed totaled up to about $500,000. It was too early to tell if that much would be cut.
Nonetheless, Chief Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller was asked earlier in the evening what a $1 million cut to the proposed $264 municipal budget would mean for taxpayers. He replied that it would save the average taxpayer $40 a year.
That's not a lot of money, but it is still $40 more in my pocket.