By Devin Leith-Yessian
BERLIN — The Board of Finance discussed cutting millions from the municipal and Board of Education budgets at a Wednesday meeting following the second rejection of a town budget at referendum this week.
"In the last, I don't know, six weeks, we have been called inexperienced, irresponsible, unwilling to do our job, unwilling to listen the to voters,” said board member Mark Homles. “They've spoken twice now. While it's the will of 17 percent of the people, those people want a zero tax increase.”
Citing conversations with referendum voters outside polling places, numerous board members voiced support for reducing the overall budget to where it could be sustained with last year’s mill rate, a $2.16 million cut.
"Ten to one yesterday really made me change my position,” Holmes said. "In terms of us trying to be responsible, we did try to do that. We thought we did that and the voters said get lost.”
Cuts discussed include eliminating garbage collection, closing the town pool, shutting off every other street light and park lights.
Further cuts to the Board of Education were also discussed, however the finance board elected to wait for input from the school board.
"If we take $300,000 more off, we're looking at layoffs, we're looking at consolidation of classes, we're looking at teachers laid off, we're going to have librarians, we're looking at speech pathologists,” Board of Finance Chairperson Sam Lamaglio said of cuts to the school system, citing conversations with Board of Education President Matthew Tencza.
Lomaglio said such cuts could also lead to the elimination of sports at McGee Middle School and the district’s ESS program, which provides services to chronically absent students.
"These are realities, these are not make-believe cuts,” he added.
The finance board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on June 4. The panel will present a draft budget of all the cuts they are considering, with multiple board members saying voters were misled or not informed about what further cuts would mean.
"The public needs to understand what this entails,” said board member Kevin Guite.
Lomaglio said that Town Council members and the Berlin Republican Town Committee campaigned against the most recent budget. Speaking after the meeting he said, “I think they need to know what they voted for. I don't think they were informed. I think they were lead to believe by the majority party that they could vote for zero and nothing would happen.”
"As chair I will not entertain anything else unless we have a zero tax increase. Because this is what the council wants, this (is what) the council's going to get,” he said at the meeting.
Mayor Mark Kaczynski said he supported the most recent budget revisions and would not favor any cuts to town services. The 0.95 mill rate increase included in the budget rejected on May 22 was a fair middle ground between the original 1.6 mill rate increase the finance board proposed and discussions of no increase.
“They’ve gone from one extreme to another,” he said. “It seems to me they want to punish the voters now.”
Given the number of voters who felt the funding levels were still too high, Kaczynski said he would prefer moderate cuts to areas which would not affect town services or cause layoffs.
“I think we can squeeze a little more out...but not a drastic extreme where we're shutting down town services,” he said.