BARRE — City councilors have opted to view voters’ recent pummeling of a $10.5 million municipal budget request as a referendum on the proposed expansion of the Police Department.
Councilors, who publicly discussed this month’s lopsided budget defeat for the first time over the weekend, agreed to cut funding for two new police officers from the city spending plan before giving voters a second chance to approve it in May.
The council’s unanimous vote put its members in lock-step this time with a citizens budget committee that opposed a proposal to increase the size of the Police Department from 18 to 20 full-time officers in the run-up to the city’s Town Meeting Day voting.
In January the councilors voted 4-3 to override the budget committee’s recommendation and include $183,000 to hire additional police officers in the budget proposed by City Manager Steve Mackenzie.
That, they agreed Saturday, was a mistake — one that contributed to, if not completely explained, voters’ 752-386 rejection of a budget that would have added nearly 10 cents to the local tax rate.
Even those who backed the plan to expand the Police Department conceded defending that new initiative in light of the budget’s decisive defeat was impossible.
“The voters have spoken,” Councilor Paul Poirier said, suggesting that he got what was an unambiguous message loud and clear.
Poirier, who also represents Barre in the Legislature, said more than 100 people have contacted him — either electronically or by telephone — to tell him the city’s spending is outstripping their ability to pay.
“We have reached the saturation point,” he said. “Their salaries are not going up the amount that we’re raising our taxes.”
In a “blue-collar, middle-class community” where many residents have seen their incomes decline over the past decade, Poirier said paying more isn’t an option.
“It has hit me,” he said. “I’m not voting for any taxes in Montpelier and I’ve raised every tax there is in Montpelier. It has sunk in to me that people are really saying: ‘No taxes. I can’t afford to pay.’”
Councilor Michael Boutin said it was a mistake not to listen to the budget committee in the first place.
“I don’t have a problem admitting we were wrong,” he said.
While the fate of funding for the extra police officers was never seriously in doubt Saturday, whether that cut would be sufficient briefly was.
Although Mayor Thomas Lauzon said he believed eliminating the officers and trimming roughly 4 cents from the projected rate hike was sufficient, he was willing to defer to members of the budget committee who were on hand for the meeting.
“If (committee members) feel that any other adjustment to the budget is warranted, they can recommend it to the council,” Lauzon said.
The committee hastily huddled in the corridor outside council chambers to determine whether it would be worth holding another meeting. When they returned, Chairman Justin Johnson said members concluded that wouldn’t be necessary.
“I think the budget that we recommended is about as thin as we would like to go,” Johnson said, noting the committee cut as much as it felt comfortable cutting during its deliberations.
“I just think nickel-and-diming everything to death is not the way to go because nothing will get done,” he added.
Although Johnson said the committee is interested in assessing potential operational savings associated with restructuring, he agreed with Mackenzie’s observation that that sort of analysis warranted an unhurried look.
Committee members did say they would publicly throw their support behind the revised budget — something they balked at doing after the council ignored the recommendation involving police staffing levels.
The council is expected to finalize the warning next month for what will likely be a May 14 revote.
The recently defeated budget for the city’s elementary school will also be back before voters at that time.
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