Warren Town Council member Scott Lial considers a question during the May 19, 2014 Financial Town Meeting.
Note: Warren Town Council member Scott Lial sent the following letter to the Warren Times Friday evening in response to an inquiry into events that transpired at the Financial Town Meeting this past Monday, May 19
Your inquiry regarding the reinstatement of the funding for positions cut at the Financial Town Meeting is a critical one, and I feel it merits a response on numerous levels. First, I must say that the safety mechanism provided by the Financial Town Meeting is an important one, as it provides the voters a final opportunity to have their voice heard. While some might argue that it allows for special interest attacks on specific areas of the budget, that does not eliminate the need or importance of such a mechanism. The budget has gone through many reviews and iterations by that point in time and, while experience has shown me that little to no attendance throughout the process is the norm, we must still value and uphold the importance of this final democratic forum.
That being said, the Town Council itself has had every opportunity to express its voice and concerns over every area of the budget. We have evaluated each expense line by line, arguing the merits of all proposed needs and services. As previously stated, all disagreements and discourse have occurred in a public setting for all to see. When all budget meetings are complete, the entire Council presents its budget to the people. This was done in a unilateral fashion with no opposition from any of its members. The Financial Town Meeting is not the venue for the Councilmembers to change their mind. It is not the venue to make political statements via a vote change. It is a venue for the townspeople to express areas of concern and interest as they relate to their tax levy.
And while I believe the discourse in the room that evening purported to involve the issue of exceedingly high taxes, that was clearly not the primary concern. The tax rate was not lowered. If that was the true intent then ALL individuals holding positions not bound by contractual obligations would have been evaluated. All of those positions would have endured equitable scrutiny and ultimately equal reductions. Instead the focus was narrow and personal and undermined the very positions that are paramount to this Town’s progress. We cannot endeavor to develop our residential and commercial areas of opportunity without full-time employees in the roles of Building Official, Town Planner, Tax Assessor and Town Clerk. We have individual projects currently in motion that on their own will require the full attention of these departments, never mind the daily and weekly interactions required to support the needs of our current property owners.
I empathize with the voters of this town and their concerns regarding an increased tax rate. I have spent close to four years on the Council favoring the reduction and level funding of expenses, unilaterally across all departments, often times without support. We must always keep the taxpayers in mind as we act to finance the activities required to run this community. As the planning for the coming fiscal year began, we all recognized the need for a nominal increase in operational spending to counter all the reductions we have passed in recent years…reductions that were squarely aimed at combatting the ever-increasing cost of educating our children. Our proposed increase was under 3%, which barely covers the cost increases we are all experiencing across the board in this economy. The looming school budget was sure to carry us over the 4% State cap and it didn’t disappoint, taking our nominal 3% increase up close to 11%. We were again forced to make painful cuts to our operational budget to support the inflated cost of our education line-item. These cuts were again passed by unanimous vote of the Council and left us with the 7% increase that was forwarded to the Financial Town Meeting.
We will not be able to prosper or develop economically by allowing a singular expense to virtually undo our fiscal solvency year in and year out. Turning the crosshairs on ourselves and maiming departments of crucial importance will not solve the problem. We need to stay the course and maintain the key objective of economic development, while simultaneously standing and fighting for equitable rights and proper funding within our school system.