Friday, March 14, 2008

Some corrections and comments about the FY09 Budget

All I can say today is, thank goodness the weekend is here. It has been a rough week for all those involved in this budget process. We should be grateful, because of the November override, that we aren't wresting with the terrible shortfalls and decisions facing Greenfield or Northampton. Instead Longmeadow is embroiled in a situation of harsh words.

As a public official, I have become used to being mis-quoted. However, even my harshest critic from the past will tell you, as he has others, that I always told the truth, even if it wasn't what he wanted to hear. So here are two truths that need to be said:

The first truth is that I never committed to a level service budget for FY09, despite written assertions to the contrary by others. In fact, I have been quite open about some unaddressed needs in the town and identified these in writing last summer.

The second truth is that I am not cutting special education. I only make a recommendation on the bottom-line number for the school budget. Any reductions in special education will be a choice made by the School Committee. I want parents of children with special needs to understand that.

Now that I am on the topic of special education, let me say that residents, including parents of special needs students, have expressed concerns to me about the effectiveness and costs of the special education program. No one doubts or disputes the intentions and commitment of the school department to serving these students and families. But it may be time for the town to fund an outside managment study of the organization and effectiveness of pupil services. System assessments, whether of human or capital infrastructure, can be very helpful in seeing the big picture, developing specific remedies and recommending long-term planning and funding. Such an assessment would be extremely helpful, as the recent water and sewer system studies have been.

As for the FY09 budget - we need to quit thin-slicing the words "level service budget". Let's face it, the proposed FY09 school and town budgets are not level service budgets. We need to look at the big picture. The Long Range Plan (remember that Plan?) identifies a number of economic development opportunities. As I said at my forum, economic development in Longmeadow must be a deliberate and intentional activity. Economic development is a school issue - the schools will be the primary beneficiaries in terms of new revenues - and school officials need to get behind this. We need the internal resources to pursure opportunities - I can tell you that there are developers who want to come to Longmeadow, but we lack the resources to undertake process of zoning change and community engagement necessary to accomplish real economic develoment. My budget includes that resource.

On to consolidation - the schools and the town, as a result of the Charter, are now joined at the hip. If one partner falters, the other stumbles. The town now processes payroll and benefits for more than 400 school employees; pays school bills; handles purchasing and procurement of school services, goods, building and capital projects; maintains school grounds and fields; maintains school buildings and parking lots; manages school capital projects from design to completion. Every aspect of the finance operation principally benefits the funding and operation of the school department. It is time to understand that we are part of a system, that we are interconnected.

Here are some other things I really need to get off my chest:

I want to thank the School Committee for adopting the MUNIS format for the school budget. It has been the most intelligible budget I ever received from the schools. Although I thanked her once, I'll do it again - thank you, Jahn, for your work on this.

Also, I am pleased to be serving on the group helping to move the LHS building project forward. This group includes Paul Santaniello, Bobbby Barkett, Chris Swanson, Jahn hart and Larry Berte. I appreciate the collegial dynamic and the fact that we all leave our muddy budget-boots outside the door when we meet.

I am happy we have Tom Mazza on board as the school Business Director. With his help we are sorting through myriad financial issues and making progress.

And I am so excited to see so many capital building projects rolling along! (Thanks, Capital Planning Committee, Mike Wrabel and Adrian Phaneuf!). Am I the only one who gets excited about this? Especially all the work on the school buildings - I am thankful for DPW Director Mike Wrabel's focus on school projects and his personal involvement in improving athletic field maintenance. Mike Deary has been great to have on the team and his support of improving field maintenance has been truly appreciated.

So, you see - even at the end of a rough week - there is a lot of good news to report!

Post Script:

I declare Bryan Long town employee of the week! Bryan has been with the town since forever and still looks like a young guy. Last week, he literally stumbled on the mystery of half the town's unaccounted-for water. His discovery will save the town $100,000 in water charges in FY09. Great detective work, Bryan!

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