We got through the first six articles on the warrant fairly quickly, within a span of about fifteen minutes. Article 1 is the traditional article establishing the Measurers of Wood and Bark for the town to be two. As usual, TMM Stanley Spiegel filled his report from the Advisory Committee with puns about wood and trees. The article passed by a vote of 165-1.
Articles 2-6 were mostly procedural, including the authorization of paying unpaid bills, the closing out of old appropriations, and the increase in the property tax exemption for elderly, blind, and/or disabled veterans and their surviving spouses. And then, at 7:31 PM, we got to Article 7, the Annual Appropriations Article, otherwise known as the budget.
That took the rest of the night. That shouldn't be a surprise, given that Brookline was approving an annual budget of approximately $181,000,000 for Fiscal Year 2007. In fact, I recall one year when we adjourned for the first night still in the middle of the appropriations article. Most people I spoke with were predicting that scenario for last night; in some ways, I'm surprised we made it through.
Sandy has a specific way he takes us through the budget. First we heard from Harry Bohrs, Chair of the Advisory Committee, about how they and the Selectmen put the budget together and some of the issues the town had to deal with in putting it all together. Next we heard from Robert Allen, the Chair of the Board of Selectmen, who noted that we are one of the best-run communities in the commonwealth. And then, departing from our usual process, we heard from Stanley Spiegel, who had asked Sandy for permission to address us at this time. Stanley pointed out, as we've heard before, that by the time the budget comes to Town Meeting there's often very little we do or can do with it. He wanted to tell us that he sometimes feels that the guidelines the Boards use to create the budget are interpreted too rigidly, and he plans to introduce an article at our fall Town Meeting to address that.
Probably the most amusing part of Stanley's comments was his repeated assertion that the town had $700 million dollars put aside which we could use but which had not been put into the budget. That resulted in a lot of murmuring from my colleagues until finally one of the Selectmen slipped Stanley a note pointing out what he had said. Stanley corrected himself -- he had meant to say $700 thousand, not $700 million. That sounded a lot more reasonable. If Brookline really had an extra $700 million to work with, I think we'd be the richest town in Massachusetts, if not the country.
Once the opening comments were done, it was time to look at the appropriations themselves. The way Sandy takes us through them is by starting with the special appropriations at the end of the budget spreadsheet. Only after we've gone through those do we go back to the departmental expenditures. A few amendments get voted on during this whole process, and a few votes are taken, as some budget items require a recorded two-thirds vote of Town Meeting. But most of the time, Members use the reading of the appropriations to ask questions or make motions on the various budget items.
Or to make speeches. But that's part of the democratic process.
During this process, people asked about all sorts of things. I'm not going to go through every single issue that we discussed, but I do want to mention the ones that I found most interesting. I'll try to take this in chronological order, with one exception, which I'll discuss under Schools.
A good example of the types of questions that get asked was presented when TMM Stephen Daisy approached a microphone. He wanted more detail on the parks and playground rehabilitation and upgrade, detail that was ably provided by Erin Chute-Gallentine, our Director of Parks and Open Space. Daisy also wanted to know if the high school roof was leaking, because we're spending money to repair it. The answer was that it is not leaking, but it is old; I'm guessing we want to repair it before it starts leaking. And finally, Daisy also wanted to know why we were spending $300,000 for wiring to network computers in the school; he wanted to know how many computers we had. The answer is that we're networking 500 computers.
Most of the special appropriations, such as money for traffic signals, street and sidewalk repair, and equipment for the police ad fire department, went through without comment. But due to other discussion, such as that mentioned in the above paragraph, we didn't start on the departmental appropriations until around 9 PM. Here are some highlights of what happened when those line items were read:
Information Technology: There was a brief presentation from our CIO, Kevin Stokes, about our plans to introduce a municipal Wi-Fi system with the help of Galaxy Internet Services.
Public Works: TMM Bruce Wolff introduced a motion to add $22,000 to their budget for the removal and treatment of invasive species. The point of this is would appear to be to take care of the turkeys and coyotes that have invaded the town. Sandy asked for a standing vote, and the motion failed 102-84, which makes me wonder if we should change the name of the town from Brookline to Brookline Wildlife Refuge. (By the way, I just want to say how cool it was that this motion was introduced by a TMM named Wolff.)
While Public Works was still the item in question, TMM Don Weitzman asked about the status of the Muddy River during the recent rains. The river swelled from 8 feet to 14.6 feet, and when it gets to 13 feet is when we start to worry. Fortunately, we kept the river under control. Kudos to our Director of Water and Sewer, Andrew Pappastergion.
Library: Since I'm a Trustee of the library, I wasn't expecting any questions to come up. But my friend TMM Joe Ross asked our library director, Chuck Flaherty, how he would deal with a request for information under the Patriot Act. Chuck's answer was that he would consult with Town Counsel about the legality of any such hypothetical request.
Schools: The big controversy here seems to be the cutting of the world language program, which introduced foreign language at the elementary school level. TMM Christopher Koch, who was on the committee about this program, made it very clear throughout the night that he wants to see this program reinstated. The program apparently would cost $250,000 per year to run. Back when we had been discussing special appropriations, Koch had made a motion to cut the $250,000 special appropriation for the parks and playground rehabilitation and upgrade, and to redirect the money to the world language program. The motion was defeated by a voice vote.
Now that the Schools line item was up, Koch brought up the world language program again, and made a motion to add the $250,000 to the schools budget. Now, Brookline has what is called a town-school partnership. In essence, Town Meeting votes on the amount of money to give the school, but it's the School Committee that decides how the money is apportioned, and not Town Meeting. Dr. William Lupini, our Superintendent, said that honestly, if he had the extra money he'd prefer to use it to help reduce Kindergarten class sizes, which prompted an addition to Koch's motion to request that the money be used for world language. That motion failed, as did a later motion from TMM Gladstone to give $250,000 to the schools to be spent as they wished.
One oddity of these motions was that Sandy would not allow a motion to move the money from one line item to another. Instead, he advised us that if Town Meeting got through the process with an unbalanced budget, we'd then deal with where to get the extra money from at the end of the discussion. That prompted TMM Stanley Spiegel to remind everyone that the Selectmen could easily raise the money by raising the refuse fee.
(For reasons I will explain tomorrow, this was a very funny idea. I'll just drop this extra clue: it might lead to a fight of Stanley vs. Stanley.)
Now, when it comes to the world language program, I agree with its supporters that it's a valuable program and it's a shame it was dropped. But I also agree with Dr. Lupini and with Judy Meyers, the chair of the School Committee, who both pointed out that if we fund it again for one more year, it would put us right back where we started at the end of the 2006-7 school year. That is, the program would disappear again, because it's not yet built into the infrastructure. Meyers and Lupini would both like to see the program exist, but they don't want to create one just to have it get yanked away again.
In the end, as I noted before, the motions didn't pass and we moved on. We got through the rest of the items very quickly. I myself went to the microphone to ask about the Out-of-State Travel budget item of $3000 for last year and this year, because I was curious to know who we were sending out of state and why. It turns out we're sending our department heads to conferences. I also jokingly asked if Town Meeting might be allowed to vote on who we'd like to send out of state, which Sandy took in his dignified way as a rhetorical question.
At 10:34 PM Town Meeting voted unanimously to approve the $180,860,443 budget for FY 2007. And then we adjourned. Tonight we'll resume with articles on the CPA and the refuse fee as well as many others. For those of you waiting to hear about the vote on the impeachment of Bush, be advised that we probably won't get to it until Thursday night at the earliest.