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School budget remains intact, safe from fiscal cuts

Date: 6/21/2013

By Carley Dangona

AGAWAM — The City Council approved $300,000 of cuts to the proposed $87.66 million fiscal year 2014 (FY14) budget at its meeting on June 17, despite objections by Mayor Richard Cohen over proposed reductions to the school budget.

The discussion about the school cuts became so heated that one councilor threatened to eject the mayor from the meeting.

Council Vice President Dennis Perry proposed the cuts. The council supported the following reductions: $50,000 from the Reserve Fund that provides a resource for unanticipated circumstances; $100,000 from the Salary Reserve for the town that provides for any wage, compensation or salary changes; and $150,000 from the projected revenue of the Real Estate Tax Levy, which is an estimate of how much property taxes will generate.

Perry had submitted a $200,000 cut to the Salary Reserve of the School Department budget, but the motion failed to pass. He also proposed a $1,000 limit for administrative transfers, requiring council approval for amounts exceeding that sum, but the council decided the issue would be better addressed by the creation of an ordinance.

"I'm happy about the debate we had tonight — that's what democracy is all about," Councilor Donald Rheault said. "I'm embarrassed about the temper tantrum our leader had. I think he owes the council an apology."

In past years, the councilors would form subcommittees that would report to the council in its entirety before proposing any cuts. This year, Cohen and the city department heads presented the budget at two of the workshops on May 29 and June 4. A final workshop took place on June 11 for the councilors to discuss the budget.

Prior to the council vote, a public hearing was conducted at the June 17 meeting. Many residents spoke in favor of the school budget, asking the council to support it in its entirety. At one point, more than 40 residents of all ages lined up to state their name, address and the councilors to support the school budget.

Diane Juzba, School Committee member, said, "Each detail and line item were thoroughly discussed. It's disheartening to hear talks of cuts. The requested [budget] increase is to maintain services, not for frills or extras."

Linda Galarneau, School Committee member, said, "Fully funding the school budget demonstrates a responsible choice."

Shelley Reed, School Committee member explained that after many years of level-funded school budgets — bare bones funding — the schools were in need of many improvements such as new band uniforms to replace the ones in use that are more than a decade old.

Resident Doug Reed commented, "There's always a tendency to ratchet back — it's shameful. Teachers don't just teach our children, they take care of them."

MaryEllen Berselli, speech language pathologist at the Roberta G. Doering School, said, "Please continue to put the children first and support the budget."

During the general discussion of the proposed FY14 budget, the contrast between salary increases in the private and public sectors was brought up.

Perry said, "We have to answer to every single taxpayer — they don't want their taxes to increase even one dollar. My paycheck doesn't go up a little bit, it's actually going down, but my expenses are going up."

City Councilor Robert Rossi said, "Private sector salaries aren't moving forward, they're standing still. I think we need to take a harder look at salary negotiations for both the school and the town."

Rheault said, "I don't think we can give enough money to schools to be honest. If we say no to any part of it [the school budget] it's not because we have anything against anybody, it's because we have to look at the total financial structure of the town."

He added, "Private enterprises — I know people that haven't had raises in six or seven years."

Council President Christopher Johnson, former Agawam mayor, said, "As many of the speakers, I now work in the private sector, I no longer work in the public sector anymore. Most people in the private sector haven't had raises in seven or eight years. Most people, at least in the businesses I deal with, their pay has gone down in the last seven years."

He continued, "So, the reality is while I'm appreciative of what all the teachers and public employees do, my main job is to deal with the overall budget numbers and deal with those people on fixed incomes and whose pay hasn't gone up in the last six or seven years. There is close to a $200,000 tax increase that this budget is predicated upon, so taxes will go up if we adopt [the budget] as proposed."

During the reading of Perry's proposed FY14 budget cuts, Cohen spoke, despite the fact that the council was not in committee as a whole. He raised his voice at the councilors and hit the table at which he sat for emphasis.

He said, "Excuse me councilor. The cuts you are proposing do affect personnel. That's all right; I see how you're operating. I think what we should do, what you're talking about — you say it doesn't affect anybody here, every one of these teachers will be affected, every employee in the city of Agawam will be affected."

Johnson interjected, calling for order, but the mayor continued to speak.

"We've had meetings, but you have not given me the opportunity to answer questions that were not brought up to me when we met and I think as the mayor presenting the budget I have the responsibility, as you did mister mayor when you were the mayor for the same thing," Cohen said.

He continued, "Our school teachers and our employees, who I will stand behind 100 percent. I think what you're saying is incorrect, untrue and a falsehood and you're using and playing to your choir. I think it's wrong and I will stand behind every school employee and every city employee. I will back them because you people (facing the audience) work hard every day."

Johnson said, "I'm going to ask you one more time, if you cannot shut your mouth ."

Cohen interrupted, "I will not."

Johnson then stated he would have the mayor removed from the chambers if the behavior continued. He said, "Mister mayor, we have rules. We gave you ample opportunity to make a presentation . . ."

Cohen interrupted a second time stating that the council brought up new questions and made comments that he wanted to address.

Johnson turned off Cohen's microphone and returned the floor to Perry. When Perry told Johnson that he had the amendment in writing, as council rules require when the change exceeds 10 words, Cohen interjected.

He said, "So, you had a previous conversation. I will call the ethics department because you had a meeting and you acted without a public meeting."

Councilor James Cichetti motioned to return the meeting to committee as a whole to give the department heads the opportunity to answer questions and to speak about the proposed changes to the FY14 proposed budget. Bitzas seconded and the council voted in favor of the motion.

Cohen thanked the council for the motion. He said, "I am very passionate about this budget because a lot of time goes into it. A lot of work goes into it. To say that those cuts don't impact employees is a fallacy. It's an opinion ."

Perry interrupted the mayor stating that he said no jobs would be cut. When the mayor protested, he responded, "How do you like it?"

At that time, Cohen addressed Councilor Gina Letellier's questions regarding the surplus balances of various town accounts, explaining the status of the outstanding projects and stating that the monies had indeed been spent, not over budgeted, and were awaiting finalization.

He then addressed the proposed cuts to the salary reserves. "As far as negotiations go, we have to be able to negotiate in good faith. We don't want an unfair labor practice. We do what we feel we can afford for that year," he said.

Cohen continued, "If we want to continue to keep people with master's degrees, doctorate degrees, on the school side and the city side and attract quality people — our salaries aren't out of whack with anybody else's. You can think they are you can say that. That was tried in one election; it didn't work — our people are paid fairly. And, I will protect them because they work hard."

The mayor discussed the proposed $1,000 limit to administrative transfers. "You approve the budget, it's my job to look at what is spent and not spent. We're not a city council, a town council. It is a mayor who is elected to do a job. And, my job is to look at the budget, to present the budget that is fair and meets the needs of our community and our employees. This budget does that while maintaining a fair tax shift," he said, adding that a $2 savings would result for the average homeowner, which was better than a tax increase.

Perry asked Cohen, "How much would industrial and commercial [tax rates] go up?"

Cohen stated it was the council's choice whether to raise taxes for residents or businesses. He said businesses had seen a decrease for the past three years, as stated by Cichetti.

"There you go, fair is fair," he commented. "You can shift it, absolutely, if you want to put a burden on our taxpayers."

Rossi asked Johnson, "Are we in speech time or question and answer time?"

Johnson responded, "I thought we were listening to the rest of the rant and rave."

Cohen said, "Thank you mister mayor. Thank you mister mayor. When you were mayor, you never were passionate about a budget?"

Johnson said, "I was passionate mayor but I never interrupted a City Council meeting."

Cohen said, "Well, I guess you weren't as passionate as I was Mr. Johnson ... God bless you. Nobody deprives you. Don't deprive the hard working people of our School Department and our department heads and every worker and every person in Agawam."

At that point, the councilors voted to come out of council as a whole, ending the speaking period and continuing their discussion of the cut proposals.

Rossi addressed the audience. He said, "In spite of what the mayor says he's not a dictator. That's why we have the City Council. It's the legislative branch of the municipal branch. He can make his motions, he can set his budgets but it's up to the City Council to approve those things. We're the watch dog, that's why you have us."

Letellier said, "I'm embarrassed by the exchange that just took place. In prior years, we have proposed cuts without any of the theater or the drama. I think it was disrespectful of the rules and the process. And, I think there are better ways of getting your point across."

She continued, "With regards to the mayor's comments on the Capital Improvement budget, every year we hear that these things are going to be carried over to the next year and I don't know how we spend $100,000 month. But it doesn't go to the bigger point that we had $7.46 million in Free Cash last year. So, there's clearly extra money in the budget. I look at as we are billing the taxpayers for budgeting too much."

The council voted on the proposed FY14 budget amendments and continued with the remaining items on the agenda.