Assembly approves proposed budget, urges continued community engagement
Community members packed the assembly chambers last Monday to support continued local education funding for the Petersburg School District.
District staff and parents responded to across the board budget cuts proposed last week by several assembly members.
Sue Paulsen said while she understands difficult discussions will need to take place at some point, now is not the time for generalized budget reductions.
“I bow to you,” Paulsen said. “You will be having these discussions. It’s not going to be easy. But a general reduction in services right off the bat seems to me absolutely inappropriate at this time not justified by an unarticulated gesture to save money.”
PSD Board Member Sarah Holmgrain and Superintendent Rob Thomason spoke to the complex funding issues the district faces.
Because of decreased enrollment, the district will see fewer dollars from the State and is facing a shortfall of around $300,000. That shortfall has been met through attrition and by letting go of a staff member. Because PSD is required to offer staff contracts before it can offer its budget to the borough, PSD can only change funding to five percent of its budget, which mainly consists of programs and activities.
“By statute we must cut contracts by March 15 to tenured teachers,” Thomason said. “With the exception of a couple of teachers, everybody in our district because of the longevity is a tenured teacher therefore we’ve let all the contracts out…if we were to make additional reductions, we need to know a year in advance what the intention of the borough is.”
Holmgrain said additional complications arise because while funding decreases, or remains flat in the case of
borough funding, expenses continue to rise.
“In the last seven years, while we requested no raise from the borough or increased contribution, our garbage rates increased, our electricity rates increased and sewer and water followed suit,” Holmgrain said.
After the public comment period ended, Assembly member Cindi Lagoudakis prefaced the budget discussion with several facts she wanted to share with fellow assembly members and the public.
“Much of the conversation has centered around the amount of money we have in reserves and for emergencies,” Lagoudakis said.
She said there is $20 million in reserves—money that is being invested and held for emergencies and depreciation funds that is allocated to different departments.
She said reserves have increased by more than $300,000 each year for the past three to four years.
“It makes sense to keep that money in reserves,” Lagoudakis said. “I’m not saying we should get rid of it but just to let you know that there is money available.”
She also cited that a 1 percent across the board budget cut—as was suggested last week—translates to $256,000 and is equivalent to four jobs not including State pension penalties the borough would have to pay back should it let a position go.
Assembly member Bob Lynn said, after hearing from community members and district staff, he now supports the budget as presented but that he wants the community to continue the discussion into the future because cuts will need to be made.
“I’ve had quite a number of telephone calls on both sides of the issues,” Lynn said. “I had a young woman talk to me this morning and said she was holding down two jobs in order to make ends meet and she said ‘whatever you do, don’t raise taxes.’ I think we (the borough) are going to have to look at how we are going to continue to make ends meet.”
The assembly voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget. The budget will come before the assembly once again in May where it must approve the budget during three separate readings before the budget becomes an official written ordinance.
Do cuts need to be made and, if so, when?
Much of the budget concerns stem from anticipated reduced State and Federal funding and many—including borough officials and staff—agree cuts will need to be made.
This year’s $9.1 million budget is around $400,000 in the black and the borough has healthy reserves but capital projects are lining up. The Petersburg Medical Center has also approached the borough for funding assistance and, to that end, has asked for the institution of a tobacco tax.
“I understand where people like (Assembly Members) John Havrilek and Bob Lynn are coming from,” Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht said. “They’re looking down the road and see the projects that people want done and are wondering how we’re going to pay for them.”
Giesbrecht said budget planning and cuts can’t be done with arbitrary numbers and it’s a process that takes time and community input.
“The community as a whole is at some point going to have to decide what services they want to pay for and which ones they can live without,” Giesbrecht said. “In my opinion, I don’t think we need to make changes now but I think it’s a healthy conversation to have. Is having the library open six days or having parks and rec open on Sundays more important? Maybe both of those are more important and maybe the community wants one less police officer.”
Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes said if his department was forced to trim the budget he might have to get rid of certain part-time positions which would inevitably lead to decreased services at recreation areas like the ball field or the whale observatory.
Future trail development would also be put on hold or he might need to consider closing the community gym on Sundays.
“We have the second most employees of any department in the borough,” Hayes said. “The difference is a lot of our employees are part-time employees, which we have to have to maintain the hours and the open swim times that we offer.”
And each department has a budget that is unique and that is why many community members reacted strongly against across the board budget cuts that were proposed last week.
Unless the assembly warns the school district a year in advance, PSD can only cut around five percent of its budget, which includes student activities and programs such as sports and music along with vocational education and teaching supplies.
Thomason said the most likely program to be cut first would be middle school travel.
During Monday’s assembly meeting, member Kurt Wohlhueter suggested the borough initiate town hall meetings for community members and decision makers to engage each other and plan for the future.
Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor said he was happy to hear from so many concerned residents.
“I think the last week was good democracy,” Stanton Gregor said. “It’s good to hear where people are at. It’s good to hear what’s important to members of the community. It’s important to hear the consequences of the decisions that we make.”