Letter to the editor sets the stage for Barre budget vote
BARRE — One City Council member's last-minute decision to publicly oppose the $10.2 million municipal budget proposal that will be on Tuesday's ballot in Barre has the man behind the spending plan shaking his head and biting his tongue.
City Manager Steve Mackenzie chose not to publicly respond to Councilor Dominic Etli's recently published critique of the city budget when asked about it Saturday. However, it was pretty clear that both the timing and the tenor of a letter to the editor that appeared in Friday's edition of The Times Argus caught the manager by surprise.
The letter, which was written by Etli, outlined his opposition to the proposed budget, and his concerns about the recent trajectory of city spending and its impact on the local tax rate.
“… We are on a completely unsustainable path,” Etli wrote, noting the bottom line of the municipal budget has increased by more than 40 percent in the last eight years and the city boasts the state's second highest tax rate.
“… Barre City needs to do an about face, and reduce the spending that has driven our living costs much higher than the national average,” he wrote. “Your elected officials will not reign in spending until you force us to do so.”
Etli wrapped up his letter with a hyperbolic invitation to voters to join him in opposing the proposed budget.
“… I fear that this budget vote will pass, and city officials will continue to take that as a mandate to continue spending toward a path of economic doom,” he wrote. “I'm voting ‘no' on the budget, and I hope you will, too.”
To be fair, Etli expressed concern about the budget early on — suggesting at one point that Barre's “tax rate,” not its “crime rate,” was discouraging young families from settling in the city. However, he has been largely quiet since — repeatedly passing up the opportunity to publicly express his misgivings about the spending plan while the council was in session and Mackenzie was fielding questions and concerns from anyone who had them.
That, more than anything, is what troubles Mayor Thomas Lauzon about an eleventh-hour letter that he believes probably shed more heat than light.
“If you have a question ask it,” Lauzon said. “He (Etli) made a statement, he didn't ask a question.”
Lauzon said he respects Etli's right to express his opinion about the budget, but he respectfully disagrees with it.
“I just think he's wrong and I've told him that,” said Lauzon, who kept a previously scheduled lunch date with Etli hours after his letter appeared in Friday morning's paper.
According to Lauzon, that letter reflected “… a grand-standing Tea Party attitude” that wasn't “helpful” and he believed could fairly be viewed as a slap in the face to Mackenzie.
“The person I feel most badly for is Steve,” Lauzon said of Mackenzie. “This isn't a job for Steve. He's given up his career (as a professional engineer) and basically taken this job because he cares deeply about Barre and making this community a better place.”
Though Mackenzie hasn't told him so, Lauzon said the manager, who has been busily pitching his budget proposal to local service clubs thinking he already had the support of the seven-member City Council sewn up, was “hurt” to learn he was mistaken.
That, Lauzon said, is on Etli, who, he claims could have — and probably should have — spoken up sooner.
“It would have been nice if he (Etli) had expressed (his concerns) appropriately,” Lauzon said. “He had a month to look at the budget … and didn't say anything when we voted to approve it.
“I'm annoyed that a councilor would remain silent … and then throw a grenade at the last minute,” the mayor added. “It feels very calculated to me.”
Lauzon stressed he doesn't object to dissent, but said Etli's silence created the “impression” of support.
The same can't be said of School Commissioner Rachel Piper, who openly and repeatedly told fellow board members, and anyone else who was listening, that she planned to vote against this year's budget for Barre City Elementary and Middle School.
“I would have no issue if he (Etli) had done that,” Lauzon said, noting Piper's position — right or wrong — was crystal clear to school administrators and her fellow board members.
Councilor Michael Smith, who first learned about Etli's letter Saturday morning, used the word “blind-sided” to describe his reaction to it.
Lauzon said Smith's reaction was precisely how he felt when he first read a letter that he vowed would not be discussed when the council meets on the eve of Tuesday's budget vote.
“This is not going to bubble over into Mondays meeting,” he said. “I'm not going to let that happen.”
Recent history would seem to suggest Etli's letter wouldn't have to influence many voters to potentially spell trouble for a municipal budget that will require a 10-cent rate hike.
Since Lauzon was first elected mayor in 2006 the budget has never passed by more than 100 votes and the margin has been a razor-thin 18 votes in two of the last three years. It has also been rejected twice — in 2008 and 2006. The latter budget defeat was spearheaded by Lauzon, who made excessive city spending the cornerstone of his first mayoral campaign.
Lauzon said he sounded a lot like Etli at the time, but has since concluded that good government and a full service city come at a price and he has shifted his focus to giving taxpayers more for their money.
“I think we've done that,” he said. “Hopefully the voters agree.”
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