Budget rift emerges at Granby TM: Finance Committee at odds with School, Fire departments

Granby Junior/Senior High School

Granby Junior/Senior High School FILE PHOTO

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-20-2024 3:42 PM

GRANBY — The town recently completed its two-part annual Town Meeting, at which residents passed a $29.1 million budget for fiscal 2025 while also listening to a contentious disagreement between the Finance Committee and the School and Fire departments over the way the budget is put together.

The first annual Town Meeting occurred on May 13, when voters signed off on $3.5 million in capital items and stabilization funds. That money will be used to buy five new vehicles and a $1.3 million fire engine.

Part two came on June 8, when voters supported municipal department budgets, totaling $21.8 million, and funding for town ambulance and sewer departments.

The largest portion of the budget, at $13.1 million next fiscal year, is for the School Department. The budget is set to increase 4.12% next year, but officials said spikes in insurance and transportation costs will eat up most of the extra funds, and the minimum state aid — $30 to $60 per student — Granby receives is not expected to offset the increases enough to cover level-services budget. That will lead to reductions in funding for curriculum, technology and four full-time positions yet to be identified, school officials said.

“With the expiration of [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds], Granby is now in a position where we are close to teaching only the core subjects — math, science, social studies, and ELA — leaving us unable to offer a variety of opportunities that our students deserve,” School Committee Chair Jennifer Bartosz said at the June 8 meeting.

While discussion centered on the school budget, residents did not question the rest of the town’s operating budget, though some had questions about the capital expenditures approved in May. Resident Dennis Hull noted that before this year’s capital spending for new vehicles and a firetruck, the town has purchased four dump trucks in the past five years and an additional four pickup trucks within a 13-year timeframe.

“We hear the Finance Committee constantly saying we don’t have funds, we don’t have funds, but then we spend all this money,” Hull said.

Finance Committee Chair John Libera Jr. said the committee approved these purchases to offset expensive vehicle maintenance costs.

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“Town Meeting has been bemoaning the fact that schools are falling apart, the buildings are falling apart and nothing seems to be done year-to-year for the maintenance of them,” Libera said.

“Well, this is an example on a smaller scale of not letting things fall apart to the point where they’re not useful anymore.”

Budget process

The real rift at last week’s meeting, however, occurred between the Finance and School committees prompted by discussion of the town’s decaying Granby Junior Senior High School building.

Libera read a section of the Fiance Committee’s report detailing the committee’s considerations and concerns for the future of Granby and its implications for the school.

The message starts by explaining several unique aspects of Granby’s budgeting process, mainly that the School Department is not required to submit a budget to the town administrator, and that the Finance Committee has very little control over limiting capital expenditures and enterprise funds.

Both these factors impact the decaying Junior Senior school, which requires extensive renovations or a rebuild to meet public safety standards and education requirements. Residents would either need to support a reduced operating budget that offers less services, or support a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override to solve this dilemma.

“The Finance Committee does not think this is going to happen within the very near future, but is convinced that it will happen in the foreseeable future,” Libera read from the report. “When it does, the town is going to be woefully unprepared. If the town starts preparing soon, Granby can find its way through this with a reasonable solution.”

Despite the Finance Committee’s efforts to inspire conversations on fiscal reform, their remarks and behavior came under a range of scrutiny from other Granby residents.

In her report on behalf of the School Committee, Bartosz clarified that the School Committee submits the School Department budget to the town administrator by the date other departments send in their budgets, and has done so for the past three years.

“We understand that the school budget differs from other town departments. But we have consistently tried to take steps to align with the town of Granby’s processes as applicable,” Bartosz said.

In addition, Superintendent Stephen Sullivan reached out to the Finance Committee several times about meeting to discuss the budget, but heard no response. The Finance Committee thus discussed the budget without any school department or committee member present.

Libera responded that he was “mystified” by the School Committee’s response, as the Finance Committee had no questions about the school budget.

Finance Committee rebuke

The Finance Committee also heard criticism from residents for encouraging a “no” vote on the special Town Meeting articles pertaining to the Fire Department’s budget overages. The Fire Department’s overages have doubled each year over the past three years, rising from $58,000 in fiscal 2022 to $196,000 in fiscal 2024.

Libera noted that the fire and ambulance budgets for the coming year received a very small increase, and the growing yearly overages makes this budget “totally lacking in believability.”

“Vote ‘yes’ if you think it’s perfectly all right in a small town for a department to completely disregard the budget process and spend whatever he or she wants,” he added.

Fire Chief Mike O’Neal explained a large portion of the department’s extra expenditures were due to unforeseen circumstances, like two full-time firefighters taking medical leave and another firefighter being injured on duty. To properly staff the ambulance and call force, O’Neal said the department had to pay overtime for the firefighters covering shifts and to hire a provisional firefighter.

“We have been playing catch up for the past three budgets due to underfunding in years past,” he said. “I have tried to take a slow rebuilding process and approach to not shell shock the taxpayers.”

Voters were quick to show support for O’Neal, remarking that the Finance Committee spent an entire meeting in May criticizing his management of the department.

“The things that you said and discussed are of no help whatsoever to the chief or the budget. All you did was bash him and discuss about how you could get out of his contract,” resident Chad Cunningham said.

Resident Mark Bail and retired fire chief Dennis Hull both remarked that more communication between the O’Neal and the Finance Committee would allow both to support each other rather than create tension.

“I think we need you guys to work together, not really [to] send a message to the chief. I think he needs some help, and he needs some cooperation,” Bail said.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.