BARRE — Mayor Thomas Lauzon says he didn’t support either of the major budget proposals that were handily rejected by Granite City voters last month, but he does now.
Citing adjustments made to spending plans for both the city and its central elementary school, and what he views as a now-tolerable increase in the local tax rate, Lauzon said Tuesday night that he is prepared to vote for both budgets next month and is urging others to do the same.
“I am hopeful that people will get out and recognize the effort that has gone (into revising these budgets),” he said, suggesting the sticker shock that prompted voters to defeat them on Town Meeting Day was understandable.
Lauzon said even he voted against the proposed budgets, which would have collectively added more than 13 cents to the local tax rate, an increase of about 4.9 percent. That increase would have meant paying an additional $136.50 in property taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value.
Thanks to a team effort that was a mix of hard work and good fortune, numbers Lauzon once viewed as too high are now about right, according to the mayor.
Based on the latest projections, Granite City voters are facing a rate hike of about 6.2 cents, or 2.2 percent. If both budgets are approved next month, property owners can expect to pay an extra $61.70 in taxes for every $100,000 of assessed value — less than half the increase they were facing in March.
On a night when the superintendent of schools was a no-show, and the chairman of a citizens budget committee arrived just in time to provide both a brief overview and an endorsement of the municipal spending plan, Lauzon said he hopes voters find those new numbers palatable.
“If this budget doesn’t pass I’m not quite sure where we go,” Lauzon said, suggesting that cutting programs would be a mistake and a summerlong budget battle would be unfortunate, if not unprecedented in Barre.
Last year it took three tries to get the municipal budget passed. Lauzon is hoping this year is more like 2008, when a single revote did the trick, than 2006, when it took four tries to pass budgets for the city, its elementary school and the local union high school.
“It seemed like we just voted the budget all summer long because we did,” Lauzon recalled. “It was just brutal.”
According to him, it was a focus-shifting, momentum-sapping experience that he isn’t interested in repeating, particularly at a time when Barre is experiencing something of a renaissance.
“We’ve just got work to do, and it really takes the wind out of your sails when you’re having to stop, let all of your other plans idle (because) you can’t advance any of them forward and you’ve got to spend the time re-presenting a budget,” he said.
Lauzon left the explanation of both budgets that will be on the ballot in Barre next month to Justin Johnson, chairman of a council-appointed citizens finance committee, and Councilor Lucas Herring, who is chairman of the local school board and offered to pinch hit for Superintendent John Bacon.
Johnson defended the $10.29 million municipal budget proposal that the committee unanimously endorsed after a review earlier this year.
“There’s not a lot of fat in this budget at all,” Johnson said, noting it no longer included $183,000 to hire two new police officers.
The committee did not recommend the two new police positions in the failed version of the budget, but was overridden by a divided City Council.
That decision set the stage for residents’ rejection of the municipal budget in a 752-386 vote, prompting the council to abandon the plan to hire new officers and embrace the budget first proposed by the committee.
According to Johnson, the committee’s recommendation reflected an honest attempt to balance the cost of operating a full-service city with the needs of its taxpayers.
Johnson said that meant gambling that fuel prices won’t spike and a harsh winter won’t require more road salt, and opting not to fund potentially worthy proposals like hiring a finance director and investing in a management study.
“We feel that (the budget) is tight, but we’re trying to think about the voters as well,” he said.
Herring said the School Board got the message after voters handily rejected its $12.4 million budget request, 652-483, last month.
“What we heard loud and clear is we’re all working from the same tax base,” Herring said.
According to Herring, the board identified nearly $250,000 in cuts and adjustments — including a savings of roughly $100,000 in busing costs that can be traced to bids that were better than expected. The district also saved nearly $30,000 on health insurance due to what proved to be an overly conservative estimate, and has shelved the planned expansion of its preschool program, saving $90,000 in personnel costs.
The preschool program “was something we were trying to be proactive with, but this just wasn’t the year for it,” he said.
Both revised budgets will be on the ballot for the May 14 special election and will be joined by one of the special articles that voters defeated last month. The school district’s request for $61,000 to pay for its share of a police officer who is assigned to Barre City Elementary and Middle School will be revoted. That typically popular ballot item was narrowly defeated, 589-547, on Town Meeting Day.
Residents with questions or concerns about either of the budgets are encouraged to attend a joint informational meeting at the Barre Opera House at 6:30 p.m. May 6.
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