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OK, we were wrong: Pass the budget

Complaining about politics and the state of the economy has become somewhat of a sport here in town, and this newspaper may have gone slightly overboard in its criticism of the Winchester Board of Selectmen last week, particularly when we urged voters to reject this year’s proposed budget at referendum because it uses flawed math. Suffice it to say the time has come for a change of heart.

In all reality, Town Manager Wayne Dove and the Board of Selectmen spent many weeks working on the details of this $30.6 million package, which reflects a mill increase of about three-quarters of a point and limits the school system’s appropriation to its bare minimum under state law. It would be inappropriate to ignore the fact that selectmen have made extremely difficult cuts to the proposed budget while doing everything they can to preserve baby steps for the community.

None of this is to suggest this budget is a work of art. We stand by the observation that the state has placed the town in an extraordinary fiscal mess by reducing Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funding to towns and then filling in the gap with federal stimulus funds. By sending those funds directly to the schools instead of the municipalities, state leaders have unleashed an accounting nightmare upon us, and no one seemed to be able to come up with a perfect answer to the problem.

Last week, the town manager assured this newspaper’s editor personally that there was no other way to get around the resulting accounting imbalance than by performing the series of cuts to the town budget that took place at this year’s annual town budget meeting. Many questions were asked of attorneys and state officials, and Dove was told that the money cannot be directly returned to the town by the school system, period. Faced with that challenge, he suggested sharp cuts to the school budget — both this year and next — which ultimately will shield the town from financial liability at the end of each fiscal year.

If that sounds complicated, it’s only the short version of the story. Dove and the Board of Selectmen continue to have concerns about the state of this year’s school budget and whether or not it will end up in the red, while more vocal critics of the school system are hoping to see heads roll. Both Dove and Mayor Candy Perez have expressed that they are doing everything they can to ensure the school system shows accountability to the town.

In the meantime, a budget has been prepared by selectmen and adjusted by townspeople, who have sent the spending package to referendum. By state law, no further cuts can be made to the school budget of $19.04 million, so if the budget is rejected, any cuts will come from the town side, i.e., cuts to services and infrastructure. We don’t need any more of that.

Voters should pass this budget with a strong “yes” vote on Tuesday, May 25, when the budget referendum takes place at Pearson Middle School. That’s our final answer.

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