Mayor's budget wins an easy OK

Mayor's budget wins an easy OK

CUMBERLAND - Mayor Daniel McKee had an easy time defending his 12th and final Cumberland budget before the Town Council this year.

Not a single line was changed during Monday's special meeting, so the entire $88.03 million budget was adopted just as McKee proposed.

As a result, taxpayers next year can expect to contribute $61.5 million in property taxes, up $1.5 million over this year, to help finance schools at $58.48 million and town spending of $29.54 million.

"This is a good budget," declared Craig Dwyer, who heads up the council's Finance subcommittee.

"It's a zero percent tax increase. What else can we ask for?"

In truth, school board members were asking for more.

School leaders had added a little sizzle to this year's budget season when, just days before it was due in Town Hall, they took their superintendent's requested $1.53 million increase and listed $3.4 million in additional school programming that they said would bring the system in compliance with the state-mandated Basic Education Plan.

While school board members generally acknowledged that the amount was legally too extreme, they said they had submitted the $6 million total in hopes of prompting dialogue.

Instead, councilors ignored it, concentrating instead on the mayor's plan that reflected Supt. Philip Thornton's initial $1.53 million request, which McKee split between the school and town budgets.

Schools are getting $896,500 while the town funds another $651,000 in school capital expenses out of the town surplus account.

That financial finesse insures all new spending outlined by Thornton is covered, but the starting point for next year's budgeting is based on the $900,000 increase rather than $1.53 million.

The two public budget hearings, May 30 and June 2, generated virtually no citizen comment, just one man who cheered on the no-tax increase plan.

This year's budget review came as the town continues its court battle with union police officers over whether or not the contract was legally ratified.

Acting as if a contract is in place, McKee budgeted enough to escrow promised raises and assumed negotiated changes to the health care and other benefits.

The only debate of the evening came when Councilor Art Lambi proposed eliminating the $651,000 earmarked for schools to instead apply the cash to the health care fund for retired police officers.

Lambi questioned why only $700,000 was going into the other post-retirement benefits trust when an actuarial recommendation is $1.5 million.

Lambi noted the benefit concessions in the new contract and said the town was obligated to do its part to fully fund their retirement health care line item.

McKee argued current needs are covered and he opposes funding a recurring cost item with surplus funds.

Lambi countered later, "Tougher choices should have been made by the mayor on the expense side of the budget so that this $800,000 cost could have been properly funded without causing a future tax increase on our residents."

Lambi received the strong support of Councilor Scott Schmitt, but no one else.

Schmitt opposed giving the surplus town funds to schools, noting upcoming pressures on taxpayers that will include hikes in fire taxes for two districts after the merger is completed. He also noted the need for a new public safety complex and road repairs.

Lambi made a second try at reducing spending on schools by asking to take away $100,000 earmarked for the first time by the town for special education effort designed to, in McKee's words, "close the south-north divide" among schools.

That, too, failed 5-2.