KILLINGLY – The Town Council late Monday approved general government and Board of Education budgets for 2020-21 that represent a 0.32-mill decrease, but only after five votes and the cutting of an additional $160,000 from a proposed school board spending plan.
The council early in the evening approved a $16 million town budget with little fanfare after agreeing to move $58,000 in newly found savings into a pavement management line item that had previously been trimmed by $800,000.
Town Manager Mary Calorio said the imminent departure of Assistant Town Manager Paul Hopkins, along with the changing a library employee’s status from full- to part-time status, allowed for the savings.
The remainder of the 2 ½-hour live-streamed meeting was taken up with trying to break deadlocks among the seven present council members, some who took hard stances on how much money should be allotted to the district.
Budget votes require six affirmative votes, but the absence of Councilor Chastity Walsh and an unfilled seat on the council made it difficult to reach a consensus. Councilors Patti George and Ed Grandelski, the sole Democrat on the council, staked out opposing positions with George pushing for substantially more cuts to a budget that had previously been decreased by $750,000.
George used the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its effect on classes as partial justification for not raising the budget number, as well as the “plenty of money” available in a non-lapsing education account.
The council was forced to call for five votes on the plan, with various cutting scenarios rejected before approving a $44.1 million district budget.
Chairman Jason Anderson at one point pushed for cutting $25,000 from the district, citing unsolicited calls he said he received from unidentified members of the school board who he said supported such a decrease.
Councilor Ernest Lee pushed back on that plan, noting the council has heard no such formal presentation by the school board or been flagged on its potential impact.
“Was the money found in a corner?” he asked. “It seems sleazy, getting it from a few people on the side in a phone call.”
Anderson responded that the council, not the board, is the final budget arbitrator.
“In an ideal world, there would be enough money for every program,” he said. “Unfortunately, we live in the real world.”
Lee spent most of the meeting attempting to bridge a consensus between George and Grandelski, who consistently rejected any calls for further school budget cuts and whose attempt to add $200,000 more to the budget failed to gain traction.
Councilors Raymond Wood and Marc LaPrade voted to approve each budget proposal as it was forwarded.
Lee “reluctantly” agreed on the final budget iteration, but noted the figure, once contractual salary increases were calculated, represented a $500,000 decrease in operational money for the district compared to the 2019-20 budget.
“I’m not comfortable and think it’s too low,” he said. “Let’s see where the chips fall on this one. There’s going to be a lot of pissed-off parents.”