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Budget cuts put tensions between city, town into overdrive in Groton

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published May 02. 2013 4:00AM

Groton - Town Councilor Bruce Flax walked back to his seat following his defense of the council's cuts to the city budget Monday and passed a table at which city employees were seated.

Flax said he heard an employee whisper a vulgar term.

"And I went back to him and I said, 'Excuse me? Did you say something?'" Flax said later.

The employee, whom Flax did not identify, replied that no, he hadn't, and that the councilor was just ill-informed, Flax said.

Flax posted the name-calling incident on his Facebook page.

"We all like to be liked," he said. "I want to be able to give my opinion and not have any enemies. It wasn't as much (that) I was being bullied as it was this person's frustration."

Town Mayor Heather Bond Somers said she did not hear the exchange but felt the tension that same night after she spoke and returned to her seat.

"It was like a pin could drop. It was absolutely silent," she said later.

The incident speaks to the level of irritation between the city and town as the Representative Town Meeting grapples with a proposed $119.76 million budget for the coming fiscal year.

Town councilors cut the town manager's budget proposal by $1.8 million before sending it to the RTM, including $476,549 from the city's $4.5 million request for police and highways.

City Mayor Marian Galbraith told the public hearing the cuts were "draconian."

"Just gouging the city budget doesn't make efficiencies begin to happen," she said during the hearing. "All it does is leave the city's public services underfunded."

Somers said later the town's decreasing revenues and the possibility of Pfizer tearing down its former research headquarters have added to the stress.

Comments from city officials that the town "targeted" the city for cuts have also inflamed the situation, she said.

"The reaction has been so vehement that you would think that we have decimated their police department," Somers said. "We're risking the lives of people in the city? Really?"

Galbraith said she did not hear any name-calling at the hearing and would not get involved in a discussion about decorum and gossip.

She has argued that police cuts should be restored, and a committee of the RTM recently recommended this. She has also asked for mediation to settle the dispute between the town and city over the highway budget.

Somers said she is trying to schedule a meeting of lawyers for the city and town, herself, Galbraith and the town manager to discuss the issues.

The RTM's annual meeting began with Monday's public hearing and continues through May 20.

Moderator Jean-Claude Ambroise said during a telephone interview that his main duty is to maintain order of the meeting and the membership, but that authority may be extended to the audience. He said he could expel someone from the meeting if needed, but he never has.

"(I've) never seen it go to that point, and God, I hope it never does," he said.

Flax said he was watching the public hearing at home on television and decided to show up after speakers defended the city's budget. Flax said he and his 16-year-old daughter drove to the Groton Senior Center and arrived just before the hearing ended.

Somers said she spoke shortly before Flax, saying the cuts weren't personal but rather, based on what residents can afford and what's best for all.

Then Flax dropped "the grenades," she said.

"In my opinion, the city budget is bloated and there's plenty of room to cut without jeopardizing safety or roads," Flax said at the hearing. "Let me remind you that in the last 15 years-plus, the city has never returned one cent of unused police or public works money. They've spent every single penny."

Town Manager Mark Oefinger said tensions run high at budget time, and there are simply many views.

"There's very little that goes on in local government that's absolutely right or absolutely wrong," he said. "It's how you get there. Cutting a budget is the easiest thing it the world. It's living with the consequences that's tough."

Unfortunately, sometimes people enter a debate without considering their delivery, he said.

"It's like sending you an email and it's all capitalized," he said. When things aren't measured, he said, they can damage a relationship.

Ambroise said the budget will ultimately come down to a majority vote. Then he believes things will settle down.

"Every year around this time, it always seems like it gets enhanced," he said. "But as soon as the budget is passed, whether it's supporting the subdivisions or not, everything kind of goes back to normal."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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