By: Brian Genest
There can be a fine line between good government and bad government; in Dracut, a recent meeting of the so-called Tri-Board was an example of absurd government. At that gathering about town finances and potential future budget deficits, made up of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, and members of the Finance Committee, accusations flew, tempers flared, and emotions ran high—and none of it was good for the town’s image, taxpayers, or focus.
By the way, there’s no certainty or clarity on whether there will be future deficits or what amounts they may be at this point. Town Manager Ann Vandal told board members the position has not changed since the previous Tri-Board meeting: town finance officials are currently estimating a $2.2 million budget deficit for the 2025 fiscal year, but that figure is fluid and far from final.
Vandal said there is no way to determine whether there will be a deficit or what the amount could be, based on the information available right now.
“We do not have enough information to comment on it for FY25,” Vandal said. “We need to see where the chargebacks come in. We need to see where the revenues come in from the state. We need to understand what the net school spending is going to be next year.”
When pressed by Finance Committee Acting Chairman Alyssa Nazzaro to provide a projected budget deficit estimate for FY25, Vandal declined.
“Like I said, we do not have enough information to have a solid answer for that question. We don’t have the net school spending requirement for next year. We don’t have other numbers that we need to make a full determination and commit to that. So, I will not commit to a full deficit of 2. 2 million. We will do the best we can to close that gap with scouring the budgets, coming up with additional revenues of some kind. Outside of that, it is what it is. We have to look at the chargebacks. I know that’s not the most popular thing, but the school has to pay their fair share and those chargebacks have to be amended to meet today’s needs,” Vandal said.
School Committee member Renee Young was triggered, apparently. She defiantly told Vandal that the School Committee wouldn’t change the current chargeback agreement it has with the town. “I guess I can’t speak for the whole board,” Young said, adding that she was willing to bet that a majority of the board would not agree, either. She also nastily told the town manager not to interrupt her, when she pointed out she was off topic.
The discussion, despite the lack of clarity at this point, didn’t stop some from calling for an override of Proposition 2 ½ and raising taxes—before we even know whether there’s a need to do so and for how much additional revenue. Talk about putting the proverbial cart before the tax horse. Based on the current circumstances and see-through shenanigans, it’s time to cool things down and put the Tri-board on ice.
Exhibit A: The Tri-Board has accomplished what it was intended to do.
The Tri-Board was formed to give members of the three individual boards insight into town financial projections for five years. That mission has been accomplished; there’s fiscal transparency. As Vandal pointed out, it’s impossible to give concrete numbers when there are so many unknown variables at this time.
Even Selectman Tony Archinski, who’s certainly no super sleuth, figured out the Tri-Board’s work is done. After sitting through the previous Tri-Board meeting, he told his colleagues that he wouldn’t be attending any more. He kept his word and skipped the most recent meeting. Good choice. As a taxpayer, politico, and columnist, I wish I had never witnessed the behavior of some during that meeting because it was nothing less than unnecessary, unneeded, and unprofessional.
Exhibit B: The Town Manager, not the Tri-Board, is responsible for the town budget.
Some want to be able to set the town budget, but that responsibility belongs with the town manager, and rightly so. And speaking of unprofessional, School Committee member Renee Young went on a tirade about town-side spending. She wasted a bunch of time ranting and raving about closing town hall last July 3, until someone finally asked for a point of order and pointed out the discussion was off track from the agenda. Passion is one thing; not being able to control your emotions is another.
Young acted like a spoiled child having a temper tantrum because she couldn’t get her own way, not exactly the example she should be setting for school kids or anyone else.
One lowlight of the meeting was when Young accused the manager of being dishonest about the budget. She then denied doing so just a few minutes later. When Vandal promised net-school spending would be met, and that doing so was never in question, Young had no problem interrupting her, saying: “To fudge numbers to meet net school spending is disingenuous.”
Finance Committee member Shawn Ashe, who can’t resist chiming in with his two cents whenever there’s a microphone available, pointed out that whenever the budget gets tight, the town splits. He also called out Young. “You see the anger. You hear the school committee saying, ‘she’s fudging the numbers’,” he said referring to Young’s charges about Vandal.
“I didn’t say she was fudging the numbers,” Young interrupted.
“It was 10 minutes ago,” Ashe reminded Young. He also called on the members of the Tri-Board to let the Town Manager and Finance Director Victor Garofalo do their jobs, work with Selectmen, and make a proposal to the town at the appropriate time.
Alison Genest, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, expressed similar sentiments. “Victor and Ann need to make these numbers work, and we need to wait and see what these numbers are going to look like before we start to panic about having a $2 million budget deficit. That’s what they’re being charged with, and they’re being paid to do.”
Exhibit C: The Tri-Board has become a distraction from the serious business at hand. It wasn’t just Young who was a distraction. Town resident Louise Bessler, a paraprofessional with an axe to grind with School Superintendent Stephen Stone about her salary, used the Community Input section of the meeting to make the case for a raise.
As you may recall, at town meeting in June, Bessler tried to increase the school budget by a million dollars to boost the pay for her and her colleagues. The motion was thankfully ruled out of order, considering it would have decimated the town’s fire department or had some other similar, serious, and completely avoidable impact on Dracut.
During her time at the podium, Bessler called the current funding of the schools, which is at an all-time high when it comes to per-pupil spending, “smoke and mirrors.” She accused town officials of “backroom posturing,” “shortchanging” the kids, and not “fully funding the schools” by making the school department pay their fair share when it comes to chargebacks.
“While it is true that the paraprofessionals are in salary negotiations with the school committee and have not accepted the previous offer that was made, the amount proposed did not meet the needs of our members,” Bessler admitted between the accusations.
Town resident Angel Bacigalupo, a member of the lunatic fringe on social media in Dracut, also made an in-person appearance under Community Input to share her thoughts. She told Tri-Board members that the town has an identity crisis. “We’re not a small farming community,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Count me among those who are sorry that we didn’t find Bacigalupo’s ramblings about the value of “historical agro-tourism” at all helpful or relevant to the discussion at hand.
Speaking of irrelevant, Village Idiot Rich Cowan, who is inexplicably an appointed member of the town’s finance committee, didn’t help matters when he took to the podium, either. Cowan, an extreme progressive who comes to Dracut by way of Cambridge, rambled on and on as he usually does, saying he disagrees that financial professionals should be making the decisions and bringing up issues related to town insurance premiums that he said happened in 2007. “We left it to the professionals and the professionals didn’t follow the law and we got in trouble,” Cowan said.
At that point, Garofolo interrupted Cowan, saying he was wrong and that his comments were ridiculous, which they were, as usual. Nazzaro quickly followed suit and shut down Cowan once and for all. For those who had the misfortune of seeing it, the short meeting felt like it lasted the length of a Bible.
It’s beyond time to sunset the Tri-Board. Let the town’s finance professionals do their jobs. Let the serious adults handle the critical town business. Let the politicians, fools, and the negative Nellies go blow smoke, elsewhere.
— Brian Genest is producer and host of Eye On Dracut, winner of the Hometown Media Award for News, sponsored by Lucky Oil. ◊