Members of Petersburg’s borough assembly Tuesday tried to cut funding for community service grants and borough departments but did not have enough votes to approve those reductions. That was after local organizations that rely on borough grants made their case for continued support.
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Representatives from the school district, Petersburg mental health services, KFSK, the Clausen museum, and Mt View Manor food service turned out to answer questions about how grants and payments to the various organizations are used. That’s after borough assembly members last week questioned some of the payments and mentioned making reductions.

Overall, the items in the borough community services budget total nearly two million dollars, with $1.8 million of that going to the local school district.

School superintendent Rob Thomason urged the borough to maintain that contribution. He said the district anticipated a drop in state funding of 300,000 dollars or more and said they’ve been reducing its staff to make up for that funding loss. “In the 2014-15 school year there’ll be three fewer teachers in the district and one less classified or instructional assistant. Those teachers are an English teacher, an elementary teacher and a special education teacher plus the one classified person. These reductions are the result of one retirement, two resignations and one, our first in many many years, reduction in force, where we actually told someone I’m sorry we do not have a job for you.”

Thomason noted the district has been reducing staff in each of the last five years. Petersburg Mental Health Services director Susan Ohmer said the 85,000 dollars in borough grants to her organization have allowed mental health to employ another clinician. Ohmer said that local funding also helped mental health secure other state and federal grant money. “Without local funding it hamstrings us in so many different ways in terms of leveraging grants and being able to see the type of clients that we see and being able to provide the level of response that we provide for the police and the hospital and other agencies that ask us for help.” Ohmer said loss of the local grant money would mean her agency would have to refer clients elsewhere.

Other grantees also made their case for continued grant funding. A draft budget prepared by borough staff includes the same level of funding for community services as last year. That draft budget is balanced in the general fund and even anticipates setting aside 437-thousand dollars for future purchases or projects in the borough’s property development fund.

Assembly member John Havrilek wanted to cut borough spending. “The people in the community that are working at Hammers, TU, they’re not making anywhere near what the people in this room are making, nowhere near. That’s why I have a hard time supporting more funding or even the same funding when I know people are out there that are struggling to feed themselves and their kids. Much worse shape than most of us. Cant afford it. So we need to cut back,” Havrilek said.

Havrilek suggested an amendment to cut the borough budget across the board one percent, reduce the school appropriation by 200,000 dollars and eliminate the mental health grants.

Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor noted his ownership of a private mental health counseling business. Others on the assembly were split on whether he stood to get more business by reducing a borough payment to the other mental health provider in town. Nancy Strand thought he did. “It looks to me like you could stand to gain monetarily which is the question behind recusing,” Strand said.

With Stanton Gregor sitting out the vote, the amendment failed 2-2 with Havrilek and Bob Lynn in favor and Strand and acting mayor Cindi Lagoudakis voting against it.

A motion to approve the draft budget as proposed by staff also failed with three “no” votes, Stanton Gregor, Lynn and Havrilek. Those three also voted for a two percent across the board reduction to the borough budget not including community payments. With Strand and Lagoudakis voting no, that proposal also fell short.

Yet another vote was on a one percent cut across the board. Since that included the mental health grants, Stanton Gregor sat out that vote, and it failed 3-1 with only Strand voting no.

With no proposals getting a four-vote majority, assembly member Bob Lynn made his case for cutting borough spending. “I hear out there almost everybody I talk to says we wanna tax this, we wanna tax that, we want more, we want more and we haven’t looked at cutting anything,” Lynn said. “I’ve got a concern with that, I’ve got a real concern. We know the national budget’s affected. We’ve heard everybody here saying their budgets are going down because the grants aren’t there and everything else. We’ve got some of the same problems. The other one is we have buildings around town that need help and some place along the line we’re gonna have to take care of ourselves I believe and we gotta start saving for it.”

However, Nancy Strand questioned the impact of across the board cuts. “We just spent several hours in meetings with or work sessions with our department heads and I of the impression they’ve cut pretty much as much as they can without really reducing services. So I wonder where these additional one percent or two percent cuts are gonna come from?”

School superintendent Thomason answered that question, noting the school district has already contracted with its staff for next year and any cuts would have to fall on five percent of the district’s budget. “The only place we can go to reduce the number you’re talking about, that magical five percent is sports, activities, music, art, professional development, vocational education, technology and teaching supplies. We cannot, by law, retract contracts. So if you’re gonna make this decision for the school district, be it one percent, be it two percent, be it 200-thousand dollars, there will be a significant community impact.”

Meanwhile, assembly member Havrilek still wanted to find ways to cut borough spending.
:33 “I know we went through these meetings and talked to people but I still think the bottom line is at this spending rate we’re being irresponsible. And unless we create our own reserves if we do have problems or emergencies we’re asking for a disaster. I don’t think its too late, I think we need to start planning now. But you know I don’t know what else to offer.”

Since none of the assembly’s amendments or motions passed, that leaves staff with its original draft budget. That will be up for a public hearing along with three votes, and more potential amendments, during assembly meetings in May and June.