BERLIN — Students rallied to the defense of a mental health program and residents supported services for the elderly and disabled, prompting the Board of Finance to reject further cuts to municipal funding and increase school funding beyond the allocation rejected by referendum on May 22.
“We need to put party politics aside and fix this situation,” said resident Craig Bowman. “These are all important social services our community deserves.”
The finance board approved sending proposed budgets of $44.6 million for general government and $43.9 million for the Board of Education to referendum, the town’s third. The budget proposal would necessitate 1.11 mill rate increase to 32.72. The town also recently completed a revaluation, so the tax impact on each homeowner will depend on individual assessments.
The Town Council is scheduled to take up the proposal when it meets tonight.
The finance board’s proposed education budget is actually $250,000 higher than the budget residents rejected at the May 22 referendum, as the finance board reinstated a cut imposed by the Town Council last month. General government spending is equal to the budget residents rejected at the last referenudm.
The Berlin High School program Effective School Solutions received an outpouring of support from students and their parents who have benefited its work teaching students methods to overcome anxiety and depression keeping from them attending classes.
Berlin High School Junior Emma Arroyo said she once skipped classes and hid in a bathroom stall while having a panic attack because she had nowhere she felt she could turn.
“If I had not been put in (Effective School Solutions), these patterns probably would have never stopped,” she said. “I would not be on track to go to college or maybe even graduate.” she said. “
Superintendent of Schools Brian Benigni said the program, often called ESS, was one of four spending areas set for an increase next school year, making it vulernable after the council’s $250,000 cut. The contracted program, which serves 20 students, necessitates a $260,810 spending increase, with teacher salaries, utilities costs and transportation expenses also rising.
School board President Matthew Tencza defended increasing salary costs, saying the education budget “is 85 percent people, and people deserve a raise.” He also said the board rejected another $860,000 in requests from school officials in the proposal it sent to the finance board.
After the hearing, Mayor Mark Kaczynski said he believes the Board of Education would have been able to absorb the $250,000 cut, and questioned why the finance board didn’t use $650,000 in previously unanticipated state aid to offset the mill increase. Finance board members have expressed concern that the state could cut that funding in the middle of the fiscal year, Kaczynski said using half the money, between $300,000 and $400,000, would provide an adequate buffer for that possibility.
He raised the possibility that the council could reject the finance board’s proposal, requiring a joing meeting between the two boards to arrive at a budget. Responding to accusations that the he and Republican councilors didn’t support the second budget, Kaczynski said that proposal was reasonable and he would not support the elimination of town services.
“We’re not looking at any town cuts as far as services go,” he said. “We are trying to move the town forward, but as we do that we have to be fiscally responsible.”
Many residents also called for elected officials to work together, while laying responsibility on the larger community for the low turnout at both referendums.
“I don’t care who you vote for or what you vote for, you have to come out to vote,” said resident Michael Urrunaga. “And the things we have to pay for should not be held hostage by people pointing at other people and saying it’s their fault for not paying for it.”