Letter: An Extraordinary Budget Season

To the Editor:

It would be an understatement to say that our town has had an extraordinary budget season.

The Board of Finance submitted a $75.6 million total net budget to the Annual Town Budget Meeting for consideration. The ATBM achieved a quorum for the first time in ten years with more than 300 Weston citizens in attendance. Consistent with our Town Charter, the ATBM reduced the town’s operating budget by more than $300,000 and the overall capital budget by more than $1 million. The Board of Education Budget passed without adjustment. The citizen-engaged ATBM presented a total net budget of $74.3 million to the town for popular vote.

The May 4 ATBM machine vote referendum witnessed more than 1,400 votes cast, including more than 250 absentee ballots. Historically, the budget vote garners around 450–500 votes annually, including about ten absentee ballots. The ATBM-adjusted town operating budget was affirmed with a 19–vote margin and the Board of Education budget was affirmed.

I doubt that there is anyone left in town who has not heard that the vote on the capital budget yielded a tie of 716 “YES” votes and 716 “NO” votes. A required recanvass took place on Wednesday, May 8 and confirmed that the capital budget vote was still a tie. Many thanks to our Town Registrars, election officials and public observers who ran a fair election process and were all satisfied with the procedures used in the capital budget ballot recount.

No one I have spoken to in Weston can remember a tied budget vote before. But the strength of democracy lies in our adherence to the rule of law. In Weston, our Town Charter is the “North Star” that guides the resolution of this vote and towards finalizing the Fiscal Year 2025 budget.

There are differences of opinion, however, among Weston citizens about which section of the Town Charter governs our next steps. The Board of Finance received no less than 15 emails advocating a particular interpretation of the Town Charter that would send the budget straight back to the citizenry for another popular vote.

Only a legal interpretation of our charter in the form of an opinion of counsel from Weston’s attorney, however, can be considered as the definitive guide in resolving this situation. Weston’s Town Administrator solicited such an opinion from Berchem Moses, our town’s retained legal counsel, after the May 4 vote. Counsel advised that the ATBM procedures outlined in Section 9 of the Town Charter are applicable in the event of a tie. A copy of the legal opinion is available to the public in the backup materials related to our May 9 meeting. If you would like to hear counsel verbally explain the opinion, please watch the recorded meeting available on the town website at the 5:40 time mark.

Based upon counsel’s opinion, the Board of Finance fulfilled its Town Charter responsibilities to re-evaluate the capital budget at the May 9 meeting. In our deliberation, we considered that a majority of the 300+ citizens that attended the ATBM voted to reduce the capital budget by more than $1 million and that 716 citizens came out on May 4 to support those cuts. We also were mindful that 716 citizens voted against those cuts on May 4, suggesting the need for revision to break the log jam.

The Board of Finance respected and preserved the $606,171 expenditure reduction related to the fire suppression systems proposed for new portable workspaces to replace the annex building behind the Board of Education’s Central Office. That preserved 57% of the ATBM-approved cuts. In addition, the Board of Finance reduced the previously approved debt service budget, that is not subject to ATBM approval, by $189,312, cutting the funding for the new portable workspaces. Together, BOF concurred with the largest ATBM capital budget cut and added an additional cut totaling $795,483 during the May 9 meeting.

BOF did restore, however, 43% of the ATBM cuts that included:

  • $225,000 for the sidewalk project;
  • $75,000 for the Board of Education LED audit, and;
  • $150,000 for engineering and planning.

This last budget item was passed to provide sufficient planning funding to develop an alternative to the temporary portable solution — as well as a permanent fix — to the existing annex workplace where many of our town and BOE employees ably serve our community. We hope that the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education will collaborate quickly to propose a new plan that is more cost effective than the one previously offered.

We also recognize that not everyone will be satisfied with this revised budget, particularly those that lobbied the BOF against restoring the sidewalk monies. The $225,000 for sidewalks was the first of two installments of Weston’s required share to support grants that cover 80% of the Phase 3 project expense.

In the last five years, Weston has been successful in bringing in approximately $35 million in federal and state grants that relieved taxpayers of shouldering the burden for infrastructure and other expenses that make our town a wonderful place to live. Had we not restored the town’s portion of the sidewalk budget, we would have given ourselves an unreliable reputation problem with the federal and state government on future grant applications.

It is my hope that this compromise on the ATBM approved capex budget is viewed as more than equitable and will be embraced by the community. No one is being disenfranchised in this process. Our Town Charter requires that the new BOF-approved capital budget for Fiscal Year 2025 of $3,280,475 be submitted to Weston citizens for final approval at Town Hall for a machine ballot vote to be held on Saturday, May 18 from noon until 8:00 pm.

I heard several residents remark during the public hearing in April that the budget is hard to understand. For our part, I hope to collaborate with the Boards of Selectmen and Finance in creating more user-friendly summaries of the budget in advance of next year’s budget season. In the interim, I encourage everyone to tune into BOS and BOF meetings or watch the archives to promote better understanding long before the ATBM.

Every vote counts as is plainly evident with the tie vote on the capital budget. Democracy works when you show up!

Let’s all show up at Town Hall on May 18 to vote YES on the revised capital budget.

Michael Imber
Chair, Board of Finance

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