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Council members haggle over budget

Colonial Beach Schools’ budget has taken two hard hits over the last few years. The first was due to the continually deteriorating conditions at the elementary school campus, and the second came when government funding was reduced by roughly $800,000.

In 2011, the Colonial Beach area suffered damage from an earthquake and two named-storms, one of which dumped 21 inches of rain on the town in one day. After these storms left water damage in the bathrooms of the oldest and largest school building, the superintendent conducted inspections that resulted in the discovery of major roof damage. The building’s roof support was originally installed improperly, causing the supports to bow and buckle over its 100-year lifetime. Years of neglect in maintenance added to the problem. Because this damage was not related to the three recent disasters, the school system could not collect insurance to repair the roof.

This left the town’s schools with crowded conditions, since that building has been deemed unsafe for entry since the inspection. This year, school officials realized that three of the old trailers used for classes are also becoming unsafe and need to be replaced.

Eventually, town and school officials came up with a plan. Using a previous survey completed at the high school campus, the town plans to move a few of the existing mod-pod units from the elementary campus to the high school campus and add one more. This will require around $200,000 for one-time set-up costs, but in the long run will only cost about $4,000 more in rental fees on the mod-pod units.

With all schools located on one campus, the school system will see a savings in maintenance, bus service and cafeteria costs. The savings will be bittersweet, however, since the federal government cuts and the need for relocating the elementary school have forced the school board to drastically cut its budget.

Back in May, the Colonial Beach Town Council committed to fully fund the school system at the requested amount of $2,153,198. Since that commitment, the council has been scrambling to find funding to meet the needs of both the school system and the town.

After several meetings, work sessions, advertising for tax hikes and conducting public hearings, the council found itself at the crossroads on June 27. The council was split on which taxes to raise and whether the town employees would receive a raise in pay.

Council members Wanda Goforth, Linda Brubaker and Jim Chiarello remained steadfast that they would not raise real estate taxes and did not support a two-percent raise for town employees.

Mayor Mike Ham, Vice Mayor Tommy Edwards, and Councilmen Gary Seeber and Tim Curtin all supported a real estate tax increase of one-or-two-percent to help fund raises for town employees.

Coming to an agreement was no small task. In a very disjointed and unorganized meeting, council members aired their positions on each one of the proposed tax increases and the raises for town employees. For the purpose of informing the public, some of the members threw in ideas for cutting costs for both the school system and the town, accusing both entities of not cutting their budgets to the bare minimums. The three members opposed to town employee raises repeatedly said that salaries were too high in this town.

Rather than getting to the matter of agreeing on tax hikes and approving the budget, some council members continued to debate policy change that would require future discussions, public hearings and ordinance changes. The council did break for dinner for 30 minutes and then for 20 minutes to collaborate on correct budget figures, but the sessions lasted well into the night, finally ending around 9 p.m.

One factor contributing to the length of the meeting was the need to educate new members in many areas.

Chiarello spent a considerable amount of time going over town figures for the sake of announcement, and many of his figures were challenged for accuracy. After stating that the school system still owed the town money, he changed his statement to a question after being challenged on the dollar amount.

Westmoreland Supervisor Larry Roberson then asked Chiarello, “Why do you question school figures when the parties are not here to answer to them?” His response was that his questions had not been answered previously when school officials met with council. When Chiarello publicly opposed salary increases for school employees, a member of the audience asked if he was referring to core-employee salary increases, and reminded him that they were state-funded raises.

Edwards questioned why the school system had done away with tuition for its out-of-town students. It was explained to him by Roberson that the state pays a set fee of $8,500 per student. When the tuition was dropped, attendance increased by roughly 40 students. The school gained roughly $340,000 more in income, without any additional expenses for teacher salaries.

Brubaker had to be reminded repeatedly that closed sessions could not be used for discussing public business, and were reserved only for receiving legal counseling by the town attorney or discussions of employees’ salaries or conduct.

Brubaker said during the negotiations, “There are three of us that will not vote for a real estate tax increase, and there are four of you that will. We cannot approve an unbalanced budget. So we work out a compromise at whatever level we work at it. I know Mr. Mayor was working on some kind of compromise. That's why I wanted to go into a closed session. I thought if we went into a private session we could hammer it out amongst ourselves, and not sit up here and look like we're as unorganized as we are on this.”

Even after being told that the council could not go into closed session to discuss the budget, Brubaker continued to suggest going into closed session under the umbrella of receiving legal advice. When asked what she wanted to discuss in closed session, Brubaker replied, “How are we going to reach a compromise?”

Seeber tried to negotiate with the three members opposed to the real estate tax hike, stating he would vote for the meals, lodging and cigarette taxes, if they would agree to a real estate tax. The council could not reach a compromise due to all the differing opinions.

Brubaker stated her position, saying, “I do not think that the department heads unilaterally in this town warrant a two-percent increase in their pay. I would rather give the town’s non-exempt employees a two-percent [raise]. I am of firm belief that there are town employees in manager positions that are overpaid.”

After the break, Brubaker recanted her earlier statement saying, “Mr. Seeber, I would be willing to compromise, or haggle as you say, if you would be willing to vote yes on the cigarette, meals and lodging tax. And we would revisit the town increase after six months, after we have had time to properly evaluate, or Ms. Foulds has had proper time to evaluate.”

Goforth made her position known by saying, “I agree with Ms. Brubaker and Mr. Chiarello. I will agree to any increase in tax except for the real estate tax. This town needs to attract more people to live here. We need to attract more homeowners and residents. We may need to raise real estate tax next year, but right now I think we need to manage our money better. I certainly don't think we are going in the right direction if we talk about giving a two-percent or one-percent, or any increase to our employees. I do believe that some of our lower-paid employees may deserve something at some time, but not an across-the-board increase. I think our department chiefs (our administrative people), in most cases, make too high a salary for the size of this town. I have said it before, I will say it publicly, I think the salaries are too high for a town of 3,800, and I will stand by that.”

Seeber argued, “I don't know where you work, but you find me anybody that has 40 people working for them in this day and age that's making under $80-grand, and you got a real find! None of these people have gotten a raise in as long as the school hasn't had a raise.”

Edwards explained why he was for the compromise set forth by Seeber. Edwards said, “Do I hate to see a music teacher’s salary cut? You’re daggone right I do, because once again, as any system knows, the arts and music get cut in the school system.”

Edwards went on to say, “When I vote to raise taxes, don't blame me when there is property sitting that we could be selling and making money from.” [Referring to Eleanor Trailer Park]. Edwards concluded by saying, “Other town councils have given back their salaries to help the town. If we are going to ask everyone to give back, we should be giving back, too.”

Curtin weighed in, “We are at a bit of a log-jam. A few months ago when the school system came to us, they asked for a lot less money than they had already cut from their budget. Seven people sitting here voted to accept that amount. And it galls me to a level I cannot begin to describe, that there is any suggestion that we back away from what we did that day.”
Curtin warned the public that the town needs to work towards improving the tourism revenue, or the only thing citizen taxes will pay for is the salaries of those collecting the taxes. Curtin told the public that in order to pay for service, the town needs revenue. “We have a school building up on the hill that we can't use because of poor maintenance. It didn't get that way overnight. It's going to cost money to make it right. It's going to come out of everyone's pockets.

The reason there is a shortfall is because we totally screwed the pooch on our tourist and business economy.” Curtin called the Boardwalk a ghost town, adding, “Real estate taxes don't pay the bills,” and “It's time to stop blaming the school for the shortfall we have.”

Ham proclaimed, “We are at a stalemate. I talked with council members one-on-one. The budget we are proposing for the town and the school is about eight-percent less than last year. It's not that we haven't cut the budgets. The compromise I talked to members about was a penny-per-hundred on real estate that would be about $0.83 a month on a $100,000 house, $1.60 a month on a $200,000 house. A half-percent on meals tax instead of a one-percent, and a $0.05 a pack increase in cigarette tax. That would give us the revenue coming in to cover the $90,000 shortfall in the budget.”

Seeber stated that he didn't believe that people would move out of town over a $1.60 a month, or stop coming to town over a one-percent meals and lodging tax increase. Seeber admitted that he is a smoker, but said he is in support of the cigarette tax. He said he supports music and was responsible for getting money put into a bond issue to get the money to purchase the band equipment years ago. But Seeber also said that he does not think it’s fair for school employees to get a pay raise when the town employees don't, saying, “I know of nowhere you can get the kind of people we have to run the sewer plant, and whether or not you think they do it well, manage 40 people for around $70,000. I think the town employees, with the exception of the town manager, who voluntarily said she would agree not to take the two-percent, deserve a raise.”

After many hours of debate, Seeber found a way to provide money for raises to town employees.

Seeber said, “You need five votes to raise real estate taxes, and we only have four willing to raise. I don't think we are going to convince the council to vote to raise real estate. Seeber suggested taking $50,000 out of the schools’ budget and transferring it into the general fund. He wants to use $30,000 to give employees a two-percent raise.

Brubaker said, “Mr. Seeber, I would be willing to go along with that, except that I would request that no department head get the            two-percent increase. Not only the town manager, but no exempt employees get the two-percent.”

Despite the three members’ attempts to prevent town employee raises, the other four council members had their solution. The ordinance to raise the meals, lodging and cigarette taxes required only four votes. The vote to amend the budget figures (transferring the $50,000 from school funds to general fund) also only needed four votes.

The three voting against raises did manage to keep the real estate taxes from being raised. And town employees will see a small increase in their pay beginning in August.

Linda Farneth


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