UPDATED: Shorthanded City Council opts for budget cuts to fund schools

  • The City Council met May 15 to vote on the library project at the Greenfield High School auditorium. Wednesday night the council took up the city’s budget. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2019 11:57:17 PM

GREENFIELD — A shorthanded City Council, due to illness, left the legislative body without the votes to raise taxes and fully fund the schools, which resulted in a night of cuts to other departments.

About $700,000 of citywide department cuts were made Wednesday night at the annual budget vote to fill a $1.35 million gap from what the schools wanted and what the mayor proposed. 

“I would have preferred to vote no on every single cut and just add a whole bunch of money at the end, but I know we don’t have the votes for that,” Greenfield City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud said. “Sometimes you have to do what you don’t like to do to legislate.”

By the end of the night, the council unanimously approved a $51.3 million budget, matching what Mayor William Martin initially proposed.

The final vote took place after press time for the Recorder’s print edition. This online story contains the complete coverage.

The Greenfield Public Schools did increase its funding to help avoid more significant layoffs than Superintendent Jordana Harper has cautioned.

“What I was hoping to accomplish tonight, and I believe we did accomplish, to adequately as we can fund the school department and to do that in a way that will not occur layoffs to the point that we were told they were,” Precinct 3 Councilor Brickett Allis, who is running for mayor, said.

The cuts include $104,000 from the Assessor’s Office, $50,000 from the Department of Public Works and roughly half a million dollars in financial particulars. Some of the cuts are expected to be back-funded later in the year by the council.

Some councilors continued to push for more funding for the schools and to raise taxes more than the mayor’s budget already planned to do. The resident with the average-priced house will see their tax bill rise by about $104.

Precinct 5 Councilor Tim Dolan wanted to add an additional $258,000 to the city’s budget to give to the schools.

“I don’t know why it’s so difficult to say we’re going to raise taxes to help the kids,” Precinct 2 Councilor Mark Berson said.

The recommendation failed, in part because of the unexpected absences on the council Wednesday.

Vice President Penny Ricketts and Precinct 8 Councilor Doug Mayo were not present; both of whom were believed to have been sick. Mayo is a staunch union supporter and backer of the public schools. Ricketts can be found on either side of an issue.

The 13-member council was already operating on one less member, with the resignation of Precinct 9 Councilor Dan Leonovich. The typically fiscally conservative councilor said earlier this month he needed to resign to tend to the adoption of a new child with his family.

Just under a hundred people showed up to the budget vote, most of whom were teachers in the city’s public schools.

A majority of capital projects were tabled by the council as a result of this change in potential votes on the floor.

“There are not the votes to pass them tonight,” At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass said. He explained to the audience, it allows the projects to “possibly pass in the future.”

One capital project that was put off was a half million dollars to fund the fire station study.

One capital project that passed, unanimously, was a $4.1 million anaerobic digester. Last year the project was a hot budget issue; the Recorder reported the director of public works then had provided misleading numbers to the public when trying to curry favor for his proposal.

One of the longest debated items of the night was over a proposal by Mass to cut $6,500 in mileage reimbursement money for councilors.

The councilors decided not to cut the stipend — some of whom argued that the council needs to fund its elected officials to help promote diversity.

But the debate over the mileage money opened the conversation to how to save money for the schools.

Mass proposed the idea as a way to give a little money to professional development of teachers.

Precinct 5 Councilor Tim Dolan said it was a “false dichotomy” presented. It placed the council in a position where “we must rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

Mass asked his fellow councilors whether they would compromise on anything this night given the dynamic of votes on the council to potentially fund the schools.

“You have to make a decision of whether you will make an effort to cut to any department,” Mass said, “or will you go down on principle?”

“I’m willing to offer cuts in some areas where I see some fat that can be trimmed,” Precinct 6 Councilor and mayoral candidate Sheila Gilmore said. “But the idea that we need to pit one department against another to make sure it’s taken care of is a horrible way to lead a community.”

At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel said the situation was “ludicrous.”

“We are in near crisis mode,” Stempel said. “I encourage everybody to think about that. This is not smart budgeting. This is not smart legislating.”

Schools

The council wrestled for months over how much to fund the schools.

The superintendent proposed a nearly $20 million budget, which the School Committee eventually agreed with in whole.

During budget debates at the committee level, the mayor cautioned his fellow members from approving a $20 million school budget. He said the city’s budget was going to be too high, coming in north of $50 million, in part because of overdue union contracts that were settled.

In his own budget, Martin called for $18.6 million for the schools.

The $1.35 million gap in budgets between the mayor and the schools led to questions of not only what would the Greenfield Public Schools would like next year, but more generally, what will be the future of the school budget for years to come under its current funding structure.

It’s that broader conversation that the mayor has said he wanted to stimulate. He has loosely proposed centralizing and regionalizing portions of the schools in Franklin County.

“Stress and beleaguered school districts are visible across the state; even more so it seems in Franklin County,” Martin said in his initial budget memo. “To maintain and advance, we must progress by sharing tasks and reducing redundancies.”

On the schools side, similar questions of long-term stability have been raised, but under different pretexts.

The business manager has said the schools, if they need to rely on revolving funds too much, it could risk a cliff effect in long-term finances. Harper said in a memo to the council last week that using revolving funds to pay for the schools this year is a “Band-Aid” to the bigger issues.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at: jsolomon@recorder.com or 413-722-0261, ext. 264.


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