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June 1, 2020
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Branford RTM Battles Over Blackstone Budget

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Although the Representative Town Meeting's (RTM) May 19 party-line vote adopting Branford's $118 million budget included $221,200 in reductions across several departments; the reduction which caused the greatest debate between the two RTM political sides on May 19 was, by far, a vote to remove $45,000 from the Board of Finance (BOF)-recommended Blackstone Library's operating budget of $1,488,962.

Ultimately, the RTM voted along party lines (15-13, with one GOP member absent) to reduce the BOF-approved library budget of $1,488,962 by $45,000. The decision creates a zero percent increase over the current year's budget; giving the library a $1,443,962 operating budget for fiscal year 2020-21.

RTM Education Committee chair Frank Twohill (R, District 1) made the motion to amend the budget to include the $45,000 reduction; based on the committee's  4-3 vote which took into consideration information that the Blackstone Library is anticipating a surplus of $99,000 this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2020.

In addition, the library's 2020-21 capital budget was also altered by a party-line RTM vote on May 19; reducing a $22,000 request for security cameras down to $5,000  and moving the $17,000 balance into the Town's contingency funds. The Blackstone can come before the town in the new fiscal year with written documentation (estimates) showing the need for more funding for the cameras, which would be supplied from contingency.

Like the Board of Education, the Blackstone Library is not a town department. In the case of the library, the town pays 85 percent of its operating costs, which are managed by the Blackstone Board of Trustees. Through its endowment, donations and fundraising efforts, the trustees provide the rest of the funds needed for the library.

Democrats on the RTM disputed the GOP's apparent "micro-managing" of the Blackstone Library Board of Trustee's fiscal responsibilities. Democratic RTM Minority Leader Tom Brockett read a letter defending the library, stating, in part, "Very little, if any, rationale was offered to support this misguided recommendation to reduce funding. It appears that the reasoning may be that the Board of Trustees and the staff of the Blackstone Library have done too good a job of being fiscally responsible. They have informed us that there may be a surplus in the library's budget this fiscal year. So, this recommendation from Mr. Twohill seems to be based on a projected surplus. I think we can all agree that this is simply bad policy. As noted by Library Director, Karen Jensen, ' fosters a spend-it-all paradigm that is counterproductive.' It creates a disincentive for effective management and fiscal responsibility."

Representative Marc Riccio (R, District 6) stipulated that the changes and zero percent annual increase would not be "cutting" the library's budget next year.

"We are reducing the amount of money that they are asking for [and] putting surplus back into reserves," said Riccio. "If they need money, they can come back to RTM next year. They have to justify that request."

The $99,000 in surplus funds were gained due to changes in some staff positions as well as taking in a greater than anticipated amount in donations, according to library officials. Maryann Amore, vice president of the Blackstone Board of Trustees, told the RTM that although the surplus funds are as yet unspent; the library's books have not yet been closed on spending for the 2019-20 fiscal year. She also noted that some Republican RTM members remarks that the Blackstone's $2.5 million endowment could be used as a "rainy day" fund were inaccurate, as the Blackstone Trustees are bound to retain the endowment by borrowing no more than five percent annually to supplement needs.

Amore also said 400 to 500 people use the Blackstone on a daily basis, a number "unmatched" by any other town resource. Amore added that Branford is getting, "...a world class library at 85 percent of the cost to the Town."

Blackstone Trustee Adam Spilka, who will become the board's new treasurer in June, also noted that the RTM's proposed use of the Blackstone's unspent funds is "...inconsistent with an agreement with the Board of Finance."

Library Director Karen Jensen told the RTM a zero percent budget increase next year will "almost certainly" result in a reduction of library services, at a time when the library is relied upon heavily for support and technical services. Jensen also noted that the Friends of the Library contributed $32,000 to enhance library services this fiscal year; but due to COVID-19 there is an uncertainty about the amount the Friends may raise in the coming year. She said the Friend's largest fundraising event, the annual fall Book Sale on the green, is potentially in jeopardy.

An amendment proposed by Rep. Peter Jackson (D, District 3) to reinstate the BOF's recommended budget was defeated along party lines by a vote of 13-15, with one GOP RTM member absent for the vote.

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