By David L. Campanelli
Editor’s Note: In this opinion piece, Campanelli takes issue with direct quotes (among other things) reported by The Valley Reporter in a January 21, 2021, article about Warren’s town budgeting process. Those quotes are what was publicly stated at an open meeting and quotes in which the speaker has acknowledged, via email, that he misspoke.
I am responding to The Valley Reporter article in the January 21, 2021, edition about the Warren budget (title "Warren budget down 13% from last year," page 20). At first, I took the article at face value but was interested in better understanding the reasons for the decrease in the budget because based on my experience this year, with the conduct of business by the Warren Select Board, I believed there was more to the story than was covered in the article.
Therefore, I obtained a copy of the Warren budget for 2021 and reviewed it in great detail. After reviewing the budget, I also listened to the budget presentation posted on the town website given by the select board vice chair, Bob Ackland. I found the presentation difficult to follow even with the copy of the budget in hand. I paused the presentation several times to try to find items discussed and had trouble finding the items that were discussed. After further study of the budget, I found the items but I felt the presentation was less than straight forward and not true to the actual numbers. At the Warren Select Board Zoom meeting on January 26, 2021, I made several comments to the board about the budget. In summary, I stated that if I was grading the presentation, I would give it a C- or a D+ for clarity and understandability of the numbers.
So today, I went back to The Valley Reporter January 21, 2021, article to try to see if it agreed with all that I had learned both from the copy of the budget, the presentation and the January 26, 2021, select board meeting. My conclusions are as follows:
1. The following Andrew Cunningham select board chair quote from the article seems to be untrue for it does not follow from the numbers in the budget:
"Last year we had money for paving and that money is still in our capital fund because we didn't use it. That's one of the reasons that our capital fund is asking for less this year, because we have some money saved now to do the projects that we hoped to do last year or other projects that we are thinking are more pertinent for this year." The budget on page 7 lists $240,000 for the budget year 2020 and 2021 for road paving, contrary to the quote. The total capital budget for 2020 was $776,500 and for 2021 it is $761,500, which is only 1.93% less.
2. Furthermore, another Cunningham quote states, "Those are the big takeaways. We've added $10,000 to the fire department equipment fund, we've taken away $25,000 from the bridge repair fund. Everything else is level-funded." These quotes are not supported by the actual budget numbers. The actual specific numbers from the budget lead me to other more accurate conclusions. The specific numbers in the budget are as follows. The decrease in the 2021 budget versus 2020 is a total of $432,921 (12.74%). The major decrease in the budget is under the heading of highway with a decrease of $386,602. This total is made up of decreases of (as stated by Cunningham) $240,000 for paving (as opposed to no decrease of this amount in the capital budget). Other decreases in the highway budget were $100,000 for crushing (one-time cost in 2020), $28,719 for salaries and $7,883 for benefits (total decrease of both salaries and benefits of $36,602). The decreases in the highway budget alone accounts for 89.3% of the total decrease for 2021. One more significant decrease was in the department of public works where the position of director of public works, approved at Town Meeting of 2020, was not acted on by the select board in 2020 (due to the pandemic) and was eliminated in the 2021 budget to the tune of $59,300 for salary and benefits. These cited numbers from the 2021 budget are in stark contrast to the quote of, "Everything else is level-funded."
3. There are further decreases in an additional seven line items of the 2021 budget that add up to a subtotal of $31,735. The largest is a decrease of $10,500 for town planning and zoning update in the planning commission and development review board section.
4. There was a nearly across-the-board increase of salaries of 2.5% with the exception of the listers, the highway crew salaries, the zoning/planning clerk and remuneration for the fire department.
5. Therefore, the biggest takeaway from the actual numbers is the decreases in the highway department from elimination of paving, one-time crusher item and employee salaries and benefits. Now the select board would like us to believe that this is the result of proper management. But I believe that that conclusion is less than truthful. The paving was not done because of concerns with the pandemic. But didn't the governor allow construction to occur during the summer months? The one-time crusher expense was planned as such and nothing more. The highway department salaries and director of public works director position decreases were all connected and not all the facts have been forthcoming from the select board. In my opinion they were not due to proper management by the select board, rather it was due to mishandling by the select board of firings and hiring of the road crew employees, the lack of a road supervisor and or proper coordination of the highway department.
Campanelli lives in Warren.