Budgets drive local, state and national governments, and one can usually get a good sense of where political priorities might be based on the funds allocated to certain initiatives. As such, arguments over how much money will be collected and then spent can get a little contentious at times.
Normally, when we think of squabbles over taxes, it’s the national or state disagreements that come to mind. Our elected officials in Washington, D.C. and Hartford spend a lot of time debating how exactly to tackle the pertinent issues of the day, and it almost always comes down to the amount of tax dollars it will require to meet particular demands.
But that doesn’t mean the fights over budgets can’t be just as nasty at the local level.
Take for instance the budget battles of 1971. With a rather sizeable mill rate increase staring Cheshire residents in the face, tensions seemed to be running high. That was certainly the case at a late-March meeting of the Board of Finance, when a resident and local business owner made his feelings clear in a rather unusual way, as The Cheshire Herald’s March 25, 1971 front page story made clear:
A small, but sharpened axe was presented to Edwin Kania, chairman of the Board of Finance, Tuesday as Board members began a review of the town side of the budget for the 1971-1972 fiscal year, including departmental requests for expenditures totaling $1,722,275 and recommended capital expenditures of $149,579.
The axe was presented by John Drew, executive director of the Cheshire Businessmen’s Association, who has called on townspeople to oppose heavy increases to appropriations and the consequent multi-mill increases in the present tax rate of 44 mills. Although Mr. Kania accepted the axe, he did not unsheathe the implement at the session, a preliminary discussion of the appropriations recommended by the Selectmen.
The article went on to speak about the particulars of the town side of the budget, discussed and debated during the Board of Finance meeting at which the axe presentation had occurred. However, the author of the story made clear that, while the axe had been unveiled during a discussion about the overall operating budget, it certainly was meant to be kept for future discussions regarding the education budget, which was, according to The Herald’s reporting, expected to be in the neighborhood of $6 million, with much of the money dedicated to salaries and benefits.
That sentiment certainly seemed validated on the editorial page of The Herald, as letter writers took up the cause of supporting more money for the local schools. One letter writer, David Meade, seemed to expand on the symbolism of the axe presented to the Board of Finance:
Once again the hunting season on education has begun. Hunters are out in full force with shotguns blasting.
Shotguns were invented for those with poor aim and little sense of direction. Shoot often enough and something is bound to be struck, is the motto of the 12-bore enthusiasts.
Meade made clear his belief that, without robust funding for education, Cheshire would rapidly fall behind and that he feared the “minutemen mentality” of some in the community, whom he deemed too focused on short-term tax relief over long-term educational gains, would become the dominant sentiment.
Of course, not all felt the same.
In the April 1, 1971 edition of The Herald, William Myers responded to Meade’s letter, suggesting that, while well intentioned, it seemed to be a bit “on the frantic side”:
The hunting season has opened, but it is reversed from the past many years. The lean and hurting taxpayer has now turned on the fat budget of the school board as his last resort before he dies in the underbrush of the school board’s policies.
Man doesn’t live for education alone! The budget of the school board has grown overstuffed and overfat with much that is not education.
Myers’ letter arrived just as a new controversy was brewing. While Drew had made news with his axe presentation, he then turned his attention to public school teachers, releasing information on each of their salaries. The disclosure, as an April 1 Herald front page article explained, created a considerable backlash:
The Education Association of Cheshire, made up of teachers, this week condemned “the unethical tactics used by Mr. John Drew and the ‘secret society’ known as the Cheshire Businessmen’s Association.
A statement issued by Peter Piciardi, EAC president, said, “The publication of teachers’ names with their salaries amounts to an unfair and unnecessary invasion of personal privacy. Mr. Drew’s point, such as it is, could have been made by a numbering or a grouping system with names omitted. In short, his action was a low blow by anyone’s standards.”
In response, the EAC asked for the Cheshire Businessmen’s Association to release its own list of members, likely so as to create as much publicity around them as had been generated by the list of teachers. That request led The Herald to run an April 15 front page article stating that, of approximately 40 businesses polled in Cheshire, only one acknowledged being a part of the Association.
Over the next several weeks, the pages of The Herald were filled with letters debating the pros and cons of cuts to the education budget. Headlines such as “The Case For Budget Cuts” and “Cuts To Education Only Hurt Students” appeared nearly side by side, no doubt indicative of the divide that existed within the community as a whole.
In the end, voters had a chance to vote on the $7.6 million budget proposal at referendum. It was approved by a 3-2 margin, including a $200,000 reduction to the BOE budget request.
It marked the end of what had been a rather contentious budget season, but it wouldn’t be the last time town residents engaged in passionate debate about how taxpayer dollars should be spent.
What will the 2021 debate look like? Will it be rather tame, as it has been the past several years, or mimic what happened in 1971? We’ll find out over the next several weeks.