Proposed cuts draw public comment at budget forum
Date: 3/15/2010March 15, 2010
By Debbie Gardner and Courtney Llewellyn
Assistant Managing Editor/Assistant Editor
LONGMEADOW - At the Select Board meeting that took place March 1, board members voted to change the fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget's deficit in state aid from 15 percent to 10 percent - a change in assumption that would place about $317,000 back into the proposed budget.
The Select Board and the School Committee met jointly last Monday evening to discuss what priorities on both the town side and the school side need to be addressed with the available funding.
Mary Vogel, chair of the School Committee, and Superintendent E. Jahn Hart presented the schools' priorities, the first of which was keeping math and reading resource teachers at the elementary level. Without the teachers, Vogel said, it's possible that more students would need special education resources.
"We have been working very hard the last few years with early intervention," Hart said. She explained that 2.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions work with between 30 and 40 students at each of the three elementary schools and that 1.5 FTE reading assistants do the same.
Hart said kindergarten assistants are part of the top priority list as well because of the instructional support they provide.
Vogel said other high priority teachers are needed at the high school level, including a foreign language teacher, physical education teacher, a business teacher and a guidance counselor. The foreign language and business teachers are needed because a wide variety of electives are needed for New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation.
A total of 14.45 FTEs were included in the School Department's top priority list.
On the town side, the focus was on retaining personnel so there wouldn't necessarily be a cut in services.
The Select Board must approve a budget for FY11 by March 22. Residents will be able to vote on the budget at the Annual Town Meeting, scheduled for May 11.***
"I don't think we can look at anything that has been presented here [tonight] and say, 'Yeah, that's an easy cut'."
That comment by teacher, parent and resident Colleen Cummings at the March 9 town budget forum seemed to sum up the mood of the more than 60 residents who came to the Longmeadow High School cafeteria to hear Town Manager Robin Crosbie and members of the Select Board present the impact of a projected 10 percent cut in the town's state aid for fiscal year 2011.
Crosbie said the projected cuts reflected an expected $1 million shortfall in state aid and local revenue for FY 11. The numbers presented reflect a $1,370,00 reduction in the school budget and $682,300 reductions in non-school operations for a total of $2,053,200 in across the board cuts.
These projected cuts include reductions of both personnel and services in the town's general government, the Department of Public Works grounds, building maintenance and street/drainage departments, the Parks and Recreation Department, Storrs Library, the Council on Aging and veterans and health services.
Projected school Department cuts include a proposed reduction of up to 30 personnel throughout the system.
Saying "This budget has not yet been voted on by the Select Board - this is your opportunity to be heard," Crosbie narrated a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation detailing the proposed cuts, then opened the forum up to the audience for comments.
Over the next two hours, 15 residents approached the microphone - some more than once - to ask questions about, voice opinions on and offer suggestions regarding the proposed budget.
And though the mood was generally cordial - nearly every speaker thanked Crosbie and the board members for their hard work to date - there was also an undercurrent of frustration at the stark realities presented by the projected cuts, especially those to the Parks and Recreation Department, the library, the adult center and the schools.
"People used to be dying to move into this town; now they're dying to move out," said one resident, who also commented that "too many department heads don't live in this town and are taking our tax dollars."
Longtime resident Saul Feinstone, who spoke passionately to preserving the secretary and hours at the adult center, closed by saying "If we eviscerate the insides of those things we decided as a community we wanted, we will lose a lot of value."
Richard Lyons, a member of the town's Finance Committee , expressed a great concern over the cuts to the fire department. Though no positions were eliminated, the projected cuts eliminate overtime work, leaving the station without coverage when fire or ambulance personnel are out on a call, increasing response time for any potential emergency because personnel would have to be called in.
"We created an ambulance fund two years back so we would be sure peopel wouild get the services the needed," Lyons said. "We could use those dollars to get people in to replace people on call."
Overall, he referred to some of the other proposed cuts as "very, very unthinkable ... I don't support letting anyone go ... but we don't have the money to spend."
Resident Arlene Miller asked Crosbie and the Select Board members if they had "looked at a 5 percent reduction and how that would affect this discussion."
Crosbie responded that some numbers projecting a 7 percent cut were briefly examined. Select Board member Mark Gold defended the current projections, saying "the approach we're taking is extremely conservative ... it's much easier to replace dollars than to cut them once the budget is passed."
Miller responded, "I haven't heard any of you saying we're at a point where we need an operational override and when will that come up?"
Select Board Chair Robert Barkett acknowledged that discussion of a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote had come up at the last Select Board meeting.
In that same vein, resident Colleen Cummings, after acknowledging the difficulty of making any of the proposed cuts, said she wanted to hear what the long-term plan for Longmeadow is.
"What are our revenue streams for the town?" she asked.
Gold responded that "It's like a duck on a pond. We're paddling furiously."
He then said the town is looking at ways to generate income and he hoped "in the next few years some of the ideas may come to fruition."
Joe Occhiuti, a 37-year resident and frequent attendee at public forums in town, pointed out that "the financial situation of this town did not happen overnight and has not been checked [by previous town officials]."
"I see this as a forerunner, as a way to get input in preparation for an override," he said of the budget presentation.
"Do you think this is going to end tonight?" he added. "We're going to be back next year and the year after and the year after."
To view the budget presentation, visit www.longmeadow.org