LeClerc looking for compromise on budget, capital spending

With the town facing a swift economic contraction and the loss of state aid, even as it juggles multiple, competing spending issues, Selectman Dan LeClerc is hoping Belmont will steer a middle path: accepting some cuts in services while supporting important projects such as the construction of a new Wellington Elementary School and the preservation of teacher positions at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

LeClerc shared his thoughts with BloggingBelmont in a one-on-one meeting on Thursday, during which he laid out a possible compromise plan to address the most pressing issues before the town. That plan includes:

  • A vote on a debt exclusion to fund the reconstruction of the Wellington Elementary School on the April ballot — LeClerc said he has and will continue to strongly push for passage of the debt exclusion. “I’ve always supported the Wellington, and I don’t plan to deviate from that position,” LeClerc said. “This is a moral issue. Frankly, we owe it to the kids in that district, who have had to wait for the fire stations and the athletic complex and everything else.”
  • A smaller Proposition 2 1/2 override vote, possibly scheduled for a June vote, and possibly in the neighborhood of $2.5 million — far short of the amount needed to patch a structural budget deficit that is estimated to be closer to $5m annually. 

LeClerc acknowledged that a smaller override would require cuts to both the Town and the School Department, but said they could be spread proportionally between the two. However, the $2.5m override, if successful, could be enough to stave off the elimination of teaching positions. 

LeClerc said he is about 75% sure that the Wellington debt exclusion issue will be put to the voters in the April town wide election. The Board of Selectmen must decide on or before their March 2nd meeting in order for it to make it to the ballot. 

On school cuts, LeClerc, who is a career educator and served as assistant superintendent in the Ashland Public School system, said he feared a hefty override vote wouldn’t pass muster if it were put to voters, but that a smaller override might. Referring to School Committee documents showing how the School Department would respond to budget reductions of different sizes, LeClerc theorized that the schools might be able to cut $1.25 million from their FY 2010 budget without firing teachers.

That document, outlining seven “tiers” of cuts, suggests a range of fee increases and cuts to trim around $1 million from the FY 2010 budget. They include reducing the budget for supplies by 10%, eliminating new equipment purchases (except for some IT and special ed purchases), cutting staff development funds, cutting the fund to purchase new books from $126,000 to $62,000, removing stipends for Student Activiies and cutting spending on athletics by $109,000 (compensated, in part, by increased fees).

In order to eliminate $1.4 million from the school budget, the Schoold Deparmtent would eliminate library aids at the elementary and middle school and cut High School library aids by staff, further reduce fuds to purchase books and supplies and eliminate the budget for kindergarten classroom assistants. The schools’ Building and Grounds budget would also be cut by 10%. 

While LeClerc made his position known, it is unclear where the two other Selectmen: Angelo Firenze and Ralph Jones stand. LeClerc said he sensed broad support putting both the Wellington and budget override issues before voters, though not necessarilly for their passage. It’s not clear whether his plan for a smaller override is backed by the other Selectmen.

In past interviews, LeClerc has supported a sequence of Prop 2 1/2 override votes for road construction, The Wellington, and to repair the town’s budget. He strongly backed an override to repair the town’s roads that failed by around 300 votes in June, 2008.  He said that vote fell victim to high gas prices and a controversy over pay raises granted by the School Department that soured public sentiment.