At the beginning of the special town council meeting on May 8, the Democratic councilors’ initiative to bolster funding for the Board of Education looked dead as a doornail. Vincent Testa had moved to take $515,000 from the town’s reserve fund balance and add it to the education budget. John Sullivan seconded the motion. Their plan would fully fund the board’s “sustained budget” without a tax increase, by using reserves.
The Republicans knew the motion was coming. They were ready to rumble. They hammered Testa’s motion, arguing that it would be irresponsible to use money from reserves for operational expenses. Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the mayor’s budget appropriated $4.3 million from reserves for operational expenses (although probably none of it will be spent), the Republican councilors overwhelmed the outnumbered Democrats with rhetoric about the evils of using the fund balance. The effort to help the Board of Education looked doomed.
The mayor piled on, too, but when he did, a wrinkle developed. Although he eloquently critiqued the Democrats’ plan, he seemed open to a tax increase. He said that a tax increase was preferred to using the general fund balance. He explained that programs with a high priority should be paid for with new taxes and not reserves. He conceded that there was a compelling argument that the Board of Education needed more money, but that money should be taxed and not taken from the fund balance as the Democrats suggested. No one could have missed the implication: The mayor gave a coded blessing to an increased mill rate. Chairman Vincent Cervoni also hinted, early in the discussion, that he also might throw his support towards a tax increase instead of using reserves like the Democrats wanted.
Once the council defeated Testa’s motion 5-4 (Republican John LeTourneau voted with the 3 Democrats), the Republican leadership appeared ready to roll out its plan.
Republican Vice Chairman Tom Laffin made a motion to raise enough taxes to add $225,000 to the Board of Education budget. Bob Parisi quickly seconded the motion. With the mayor, Cervoni, Parisi and Laffin apparently open to a higher mill rate, the momentum seemed to shift towards what may have been the ultimate strategy — a smaller increase for the education budget, paid for by new taxes. It was the Republican counter to the Democrats’ plan.
During the course of the ensuing discussion, however, Democratic councilor John Sullivan, who had the support of the other 2 Democrats, threw in a monkey wrench. He moved to amend Laffin’s motion so that the appropriation to the Board of Education could be increased to the full $515,000 that the board needed for its “sustained budget.” As the roll call vote on the amendment progressed, Republican John Letourneau joined the Democrats and voted in favor. Mansfield, showed independence for a rookie councilor, and cast a key swing vote in favor of Sullivan’s amendment, too. That made the difference, and the amendment passed 5-4.
More suspense was to come, however. The council needed one more roll call vote on the motion. Would the 5-vote coalition hold? As the vote progressed, the alliance fell apart early as Republican John Letourneau, obviously uncomfortable with the size of the spending increase, voted against. Would Mansfield, who votes after Letourneau in alphabetical roll calls, hold the line and assure at least 4 votes for the measure? She did. Her vote forced the last person voting, Chairman Vincent Cervoni, to break the 4-4 tie and determine the outcome.
With not a sound in the council chambers, and to the relief of most in attendance, Cervoni changed his position and voted in favor. Thus, the board will get full funding for its “sustained budget” and the mill rate will be adjusted accordingly. At the next council meeting on May 13, however, folks were already looking ahead. Many asked about education budgets of the future. There were no answers.
Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”