BARRE — Zoom chats, Facebook posts and potentially ill-advised emails have set the stage for the upcoming budget battle.
Where it ends is anyone’s guess and where it is starting is a question of perspective.
At least one city council member — Jake Hemmerick — already is on the defensive and the attack. So is retiring City Manager Steve Mackenzie.
Former mayor Thomas Lauzon is among those who have entered the electronic fray; local podcaster J.D. Green has a bit part; and there is more tension than trust nearly three weeks before councilors begin reviewing the first draft of Mackenzie’s last budget proposal.
Mackenzie repeatedly has characterized the $13.4 million draft as a “starting point” for the council’s annual deliberations. Hemmerick repeatedly has argued it shouldn’t be.
Hemmerick has suggested — both publicly and privately — the budget-building process should have started with a discussion of the council’s goals and flowed from there.
The observation has been treated like an accusation of Mackenzie, who notwithstanding language in the city charter that requires the manager to present a recommended budget to the council each year, has argued the council’s concurrence is critical.
Mackenzie reiterated the point in a weekend email to Hemmerick.
“I am well aware of the refrain (it’s) ‘the managers budget,’ but the practical reality is that it is a recipe for failure for the manager to try to push through a budget that does not have unanimous council support,” he wrote.
“You have a propensity to foster an aggressive, adversarial relationship between yourself and the manager,” Mackenzie wrote suggesting he was at a loss to explain it, while citing a recent “prejudicial” post that he claimed as fresh “evidence.”
The post appeared on the Facebook page for Green’s podcast, “Aired Out,” and referenced “the manager’s 5% spending increase.”
“That is outrageously disingenuous and false!” Mackenzie wrote indicating Hemmerick was well aware the draft budget that was presented to the council contemplated a tax rate increase of 4.26%.
“That feels like negative political posturing at … (my) expense, and frankly, it is detrimental to the council as a whole,” Mackenzie wrote. “It’s not the kind of council/councilor working relationship I expect or deserve, nor that I have had in … 11 years of service working with 11 different councils.”
That doesn’t make Hemmerick wrong it just means he is choosing to highlight a different aspect of the draft budget. The proposal reflects a 5% spending increase and if approved based on current estimates would add 8.4 cents to the tax rate, an increase of 4.26%.
Responding to Mackenzie in his own weekend email, Hemmerick indicated he is troubled by those numbers.
“This ‘starting point’ is a non-starter for a lot of voters, including me,” he wrote. “I hope you feel my concern has (been) consistent on this; it is genuine.”
Hemmerick was critical and seemed surprised by a process that mirrors the one that — partly because of charter language — has been used in Barre for many years, including the budget cycle he participated in last year.
It is one that involves the manager developing an administrative proposal, based on input from department heads, and presenting it to council for its review and recommendations.
That process is well ahead of schedule this year. Over a period of several weeks, councilors were briefed by individual department heads on their individual budgets and were presented a refined compilation Mackenzie has repeatedly said is subject to adjustment before mid-November.
At various points along the way, Mackenzie said his goal was to limit the proposed tax increase associated with the first draft to about 5%, understanding that taxpayer tolerance was closer to 2%. That, he told councilors more than once, would be challenging, but he was hopeful keeping the proposed rate increase in the 3% range was a realistic goal.
Hemmerick missed that message.
“Had I known your overall goal is 3% and that the process is for the manager to bring in a high budget that council would have to cut — I likely would have pushed back on that since it puts council in the position of having to be the people that say ‘no’ to items instead of ‘yes’ to mutually agreed upon priorities,” he wrote.
It isn’t entirely clear that is true because the council hasn’t yet publicly discussed the draft budget it received a week ago. That will happen during a weekend work session that is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 4.
Hemmerick has questions — a lot of them — and they were contained in an email he copied to all councilors last week, which was partly responsible for the weekend response from Mackenzie.
Though Mackenzie did invite questions, the email probably shouldn’t have been sent to the entire council. Hemmerick justified the decision to do so citing a statutory exception to the Open Meeting Law.
The pertinent part of the law reads: “Routine, day-to-day administrative matters that do not require action by the public body may be conducted outside a duly warned meeting, provided that no money is appropriated, expended, or encumbered.”
Hemmerick’s extremely broad reading of the statute prompted pushback from Lauzon, who was one of many people looped in on the email at some point.
Lauzon said no “reasonable person” would characterize once-a-year budget deliberations as a “‘routine, day to day administrative matter.’”
“Your questions — which were copied to the entire council and begged a response — should be entered into the public record and as part of the minutes of the next scheduled budget deliberation meeting,” Lauzon wrote. “Disclosure 101.”
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ take on the section cited by Hemmerick, which specifically refers to site visits and other clerical functions, seems to support Lauzon’s position.
“This exception is mainly only used by the town lister and auditors who engage in routine administrative matters when they update listers cards, examine the treasurer’s spread sheets etc.,” the league writes.
Hemmerick’s questions provoked a snarky back-and-forth with Lauzon and touched a nerve with Green.
The latter was the subject of some of Hemmerick’s questions based on comments he posted in the Zoom chat during last week’s hybrid council meeting. Green commented in real-time about what he characterized as the “back pedaling” of Councilor Teddy Waszazak over a request to fly a giant city-owned flag over North Main Street for Veterans Day. Waszazak had indicated he would be voting against the request before deciding to vote for it last week.
Hemmerick described Green’s comments as “rather raw” — a characterization questioned by others who saw them, and expressed fresh interest in the sign for Green’s North Main Street studio. The Development Review Board narrowly denied Green’s request to keep the already-installed window decal in July and city officials since suspended enforcement of the ordinance to provide the Planning Commission time to revisit the language.
“If he (Green) is choosing to not follow the city’s ordinance, acting in defiance of the DRB decision, and getting taxpayer money to berate councilors doing their job, I’d like to know,” Hemmerick wrote, referring to money Barre Area Development Corp. spends to advertise on Green’s podcast.
BADC is jointly funded by Barre and Barre Town and when Green learned Hemmerick had questioned that arrangement last week, he polled his Facebook followers. The post generated more than 100 responses, including one from Hemmerick, who posted the comment about the draft budget Mackenzie found objectionable.