Oxford resident Amy Cote has two young children who have epilepsy. When one of them has a seizure, Cote and her husband, Steve, have precious few moments to get them oxygen.
The Oxford Ambulance Association, whose EMTs carry oxygen, a controlled substance, has been to her house on more than a few occasions to give the children air. But oftentimes the EMT vehicles are tied up on other calls and it takes them up to 45 minutes to get to the Cote home in the Quaker Farms section of town.
“My son has seized for 45 minutes straight; it’s terrifying as a parent when you are waiting on emergency services,” Amy Cote told the Board of Finance, with tears welling in her eyes, Monday night during a public hearing on the proposed town and school budgets.
Thirty people attended the hearing at to discuss the $40.8 million town and school budget proposal, which, if approved, would increase the tax rate .98 mills to 24.19 mills, a 4.2 percent increase. Much of the discussion during the two-hour meeting centered on the ambulance, which the Board of Finance has cut from the ambulance association’s budget request for a third straight year. Discussions and cordial debates also ensued about road repairs; how some people want to see a flat tax regardless of how it impacts municipal and educational services; whether the town’s finance director, Jim Hliva, should get a $12,000 raise this year; whether the town should clean storm drains in the private Village at Oxford Greens development for $20,000; and pros and cons of a 2.72 percent increase in the educational budget, which makes up 66 percent of the overall town and school spending plan.
Amy Cote, consequently, is an Oxford Board of Education member. While she backs the school board’s proposed $26.6 million budget, her main purpose at Monday’s meeting was to voice support for the ambulance request. A third ambulance in town could make response times in Oxford substantially faster, she said.
Oxford Ambulance Association Director Jerry Schwab said last year the organization had 28 calls it could not cover in town because it didn’t have enough vehicles. The organization had trained volunteers on staff at the time of those incidents and could have sent someone, he said.
The ambulance would cost the town $165,000.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t bring this to the attention of the town,” he said, adding that additional strains will be put on the ambulance association soon because 146 additional housing units have been approved for Phase Four of the Village at Oxford Greens. “We can’t cover all the calls we have now, and the growth at Oxford Greens will put an additional tax on us… This ambulance has continuously been put off.”
First Selectman George Temple said he’s working with the town’s economic development director to bring more taxable commercial and industrial properties to Oxford in attempts to increase the tax base, thus taking a burden off residential taxpayers. Board of Finance Chairwoman Lila Ferrillo said, if the economic development materializes, “the first thing we will come forward with is a new ambulance.”
See the video attached of Temple discussing economic development initiatives and how they can bring tax relief.
What Can the Town Afford?
Ferrillo said people have a misconception that the Board of Finance is cutting departmental budgets when, in fact, the board is “just not giving them everything they are asking for.” She said finance board members have spent many nights crunching budget numbers in attempts to justly balance the needs of town departments and the will of the taxpayers, many of whom struggle to pay bills in a tough economy.
Local budget watchdog Ed Spruck said the state’s Office of Policy and Management lists Oxford in the top 33 percent of towns in the state in terms of how much debt it owes. In other words, the town has a lot of bonds to pay off, Spruck suggested.
“So, you need to look at fiscal responsibility and what we can afford,” he told the finance board.
He noted the town will have some big expenses coming in the near future: “We need to replace (Oxford) Center School, we have roads to repair, we have an ambulance we’d like to have, we have building repairs that have been neglected for a long time.”
“So, if we don’t watch our operating budget, we’re going to be in big trouble,” Spruck added.
He also said the Board of Education has a surplus from this year. That is true, but not as much as Spruck suggested, school officials said.
Interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed said the surplus could be about $200,000 and the entire amount will go back to the town, which is required by state law.
Debate About Educational Funding
Oxford school board member Gerard Carbonaro had some numbers of his own to share with the Board of Finance. He said the town is in the bottom 7 percent in the state in per pupil spending.
“Kids excel despite not knowing what they are doing without,” he said.
Finance board Vice Chairman Jack Kiley said more money doesn’t always equal a better educational system. He pointed to Washington, D.C., which he said spends about $25,000 per pupil, more than double what Oxford pays.
“If per pupil expenditures translated into a better school system, then Washington, D.C., would have the best education system in the country or the world,” he said. “So throwing money at the problem is not always the answer. I think our schools do well, and they do very well for what we put into the school system. People rave about this school system.”
School Board Chairwoman Paula Guillet said there is “nobody on the board who thinks money should be thrown at the problem.”
“I think we have put together a very responsible budget,” she said, adding that the school board has cut about $1.5 million from Reed’s original proposal and that the town is not getting $230,000 from the federal stimulus program that it relied on in the past two budget cycles.
Still, resident Roger O’Toole, a former selectman who retired as a teacher from a technical high school in Milford, said was voting ‘no’ on all three portions of the budget at referendum: He said he’s voting ‘no’ because the town is hiring new people, buying new vehicles and because the town doesn’t operate like the average taxpayer who only spends what he or she makes.
He said he believes school board members and finance board members probably do a good job managing the portions of the budget they have control of.
“But for 30 some-odd years, we’ve been hearing these are bare bones budgets,” O’Toole said.