Mansfield selectmen voted 3-2 Wednesday night to do what most on the committee have asserted is never sound fiscal practice – to use one-time funds for operating costs that extend far beyond a year.
While board members and school committee members had not seen the budget solution put together by School Superintendent Brenda Hodges and Town Manager Bill Ross until Tuesday they put their trust in the collaboration the two had shown.
Ross said it had been made very clear to him that the patience of the townspeople with political turf-guarding had worn thin.
He became particularly aware if the general unhappiness with the school/municipal split, he said, during the “strategic plan” process that culminated with an all-town charrette several weeks ago.
“We heard from citizens that they wanted us to stop the bickering and the infighting,” Ross said. “The citizens are ahead of the rest of us on this.”
With an unmoving $3.5 million shortfall in the budget, and about 25 teacher layoffs looming as a distinct possibility, Ross and Hodges put their heads together last week with town accountant John Stanbrook and school business manager Ed Vozzella, and scraped the bottom of the budget barrel, plugging the hole with precious free cash and peeling off any cost that wasn’t absolutely necessary to present balanced numbers to town meeting voters next Tuesday.
“We decided to look at a new paradigm,” Ross said, “to look at the total revenue available, and assign revenue as needed to meet the services of the community.
“We recognize this budget is not perfect, but it avoids layoffs. The budget will allow for needed public safety positions in the fire and police departments, will turn streetlights back on in darkened areas of town, and will address some road concerns.
At the same time, it will keep teacher-student ratios and class sizes at manageable levels, a major priority for a town that is top-heavy with children."
“I’ve watched this process for a dozen years,” said Hodges. “It’s bee confusing and frustrating, but it’s been especially challenging in the past few years...It has led to distrust and a lack of confidence in the leadership. It appeared we were playing games with resolutions coming the last few minutes before town meeting.
“This allows us to stabilize for next year."
Some of the several dozen residents in the audience were clearly not impressed.
“Maybe next year you can start by playing a tape of this,” said Dan Pascucci. “This guarantees us a reservation at the table next year for the same follies. This bullying has to stop.”
Paul Burke, a former finance committee member called the process “a point of responsibility” and said, “The school system is supposed to be teaching our kids responsibility. What is free cash? It’s not for spending on fixed costs.”
Burke said the boards should stop talking about revenue and start saying “our taxes” instead. He said the town badly needed a delay in the town meeting date so that residents and the finance committee could get a better idea of the costs of the budget they had before them.
The finance committee had not seen the figures either, an unprecedented event for town meeting, Jim Lezzara spoke for the group.
“We were presented the budget on January 1,” he said. “Yesterday we received the first alterations in either budget. There is not enough time for us to get together as an advisory board.”
He pointed out the cardinal sin of the current plan – “A three million dollar deficit has been eliminated through using $1.4 million in free cash, a one-time source. We have repeatedly said don’t use it to add to our base.
“We are adding $1.4 million to our base – we have 28 employees we cannot support next year. What do we do next year with no increase in revenue? We will be left holding the bag.”
He noted the $1 million that now will be bonded to pay for projects that were supposed to be funded with the free cash will end up costing the town $1.7 million over the 20 year life of the bond.
He also commented the most recent state budget figures, only just received, represent a loss of another $50,000 to the town. Money realized from a savings in health care costs this year will be a one-time event, he added.
Ross told the boards and the audience it was clear to him that the school committee had decided they were not going to lay anyone off, and said that left him no options.
“If this isn’t done, there will be pretty significant devastation on the town side of this budget,” he said. “The school committee is entitled to take that budget to town neeting – there would be a lot of people there supporting it.”
The board made an attempt at moving town meeting, first to May 22, and then to May 1, but in the end reverted back to next Tuesday when most agreed they would support the town manager’s budget regardless of the finance committee’s position on likely future costs of the scenario.
Although the board expressed guarded trust in the wisdom of the plan and in the promise Hodges and Ross have made to meet right after town meeting and onward to plan for next year, no member was happy with the choices they were given.
“We are only reinforcing the Band-Aid we have – we are not clotting the blood,” said Dentino. “We will continue to bleed profusely while we await a miracle.”