BERLIN - The Town Council voted down another attempt at passing the town’s budget on Tuesday, following a rejected $85.3 budget referendum of 780 to 329 on April 25. The turnout was 7.9 percent of the 14,040 registered voters in town.
During their regular council meeting, councilors Rachel Rochette, Peter Rosso, Kristin Campanelli and Charles Paonessa voted against a new proposal, following debate among the seven councilors and hearing two town residents speak during the audience of citizens. According to the town charter, the council must adopt a finalized budget by May 10.
The new proposal was a budget $100,00 less than what was sent to referendum after Finance Director Kevin Delaney presented the idea, after meeting with interim Manager Jack Healy, of eliminating two positions from Town Hall, resulting in a $150,000 savings on the town side. With those savings, the council was going to add $50,000 to the Board of Education side.
The proposal came as an effort to listen to voters’ responses to two non-binding advisory questions, explained Mayor Mark Kaczynski, that resulted in voters saying the Board of Education budget was too low, and the town side was too high. The $100,000 less budget would have equated to a 31.63 mill rate, lower than the 31.68 mill rate with the referendum proposed budget. The originally proposed mill rate would’ve equated to a 2.8 percent tax increase, or $150 more in taxes annual on a property assessed at $250,000.
“I think we answered both questions that the voters gave us direction on,” said Kaczynski, while acknowledging the state’s $1.7 billion deficit and respecting the Board of Education’s efforts to eliminate positions within the school district during the tough economic times.
The school board proposed eliminating 11 positions at a previous board meeting, including an assistant principal at the elementary school level, two elementary school teachers - in addition to the initially requested Hubbard elementary school teacher - and two family and consumer science teachers at the middle school level. The cuts came as a result of having their budget request reduced from a 4.7 to a 2.5 percent increase from the current operating year, despite the council adding $500,000 to counter their initial $1.4 million cut to the budget, following public outcry against the school cuts.
“That’s what I think is the most fair,” said Kaczynski.
Thinking the town side was already cut to the bone and in fear of further cuts from the state, Rochette wanted to leave the budget number alone.
“I will not continue to support any more money taken from the town side,” said Rochette during the meeting. The town portion of the budget that went to referendum was at a .37 percent decrease from the current town operating budget. “We have done an injustice to this town by taking out certain things in this town.”
Campanelli voiced opposition to the proposal due to a lack of big picture and understanding where exactly what the funds would go toward, not simply moving funds “from one bucket to another.”
Paonessa voted against the budget for the same reasons he didn’t want to send the budget to referendum: support for an education system in town, but not approving a system that is unsustainable with contracted salary increases for the teachers - which were the primary cause of the Board of Education’s budget increase request due to lack of available funding from grants.
Councilor David Evans explained the idea of allocating $50,000 to the board side was in response to additional outcry from residents at two public hearings wanting to keep the potentially cut $30,000 athletic program portion and $17,000 art teachers.
Councilor Brendan Luddy voiced fear over the continually increasing size of the town’s budget as a reason to leave it alone and not raise taxes.
During the audience of citizens, resident Sam Lomaglio said the budget should remain as it was at referendum, adding that the Board of Education and town budget should equate to an equal 50/50 split. Janice Zagorski said despite the low turnout, everyone had the opportunity to vote and the results should not be disregarded.
The budget sent to referendum included $7.8 million in cuts from department requested budgets, made in anticipation of a potential $5 million hit from a lack of state funding and increase in town spending for teacher retirement pensions, which comes to $2.4 million, from the governor’s proposed budget. The potential hits from the governor’s budget were not factored into this budget, Kaczynski has said. According to Delaney, if the governor’s proposed budget is realized, the tax rate would increase to 33.89 mills in order to account for the $5 million hit. For a house assessed at $250,000, the property tax increase would be $569 annually.
The council will next meet on Monday, May 8, at 6 p.m. in the Town Council chambers to discuss the budget.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or email@example.com.