The Coastal Star

Briny Breezes: Board and council at loggerheads over town expenses

By Emily J. Minor

In a display of further disintegrating cooperation, the Town Council in April reiterated its exasperation with its corporate counterparts, pleading for either money or a decent explanation as to why the corporation has voted, twice, to withhold $30,000 from this year’s payments.
For years, since Briny’s inception, officials on the government side have always relied on the corporate side to each year pay what they could not. Town income is mostly real estate taxes, sales tax and inter-governmental fees and usually adds up to about $400,000.
But when all is said and done, that’s never enough to pay all the annual bills, said Mayor Roger Bennett.
So, each year, the corporate board has paid the difference. But for about six months, members of the corporate board have been inquiring — sometimes quite loudly, but usually behind the scenes — about how town officials spend money.
In recent months, no corporation board member has complained publicly about a specific line item. But corporate board President Mike Gut said during a recent telephone interview that the board is opposed to high attorney fees. He said the $30,000 the corporation is withholding has to do with fees for Jerome F. Skrandel, the private attorney the town hires for legal advice.
“It is a sticking point with the corporation at this point in time,” Gut said. “They’re going to tell me it’s cheap. But we don’t agree that we should have a lawyer sitting in every meeting.”
Bennett said the fees are high, but says Skrandel “does a hell of a lot.” Most recently, Skrandel helped advise on rewriting the comprehensive plan.
The town’s souring relationship with itself is hard on residents, who say the mood in Briny used to be more easygoing.
“This is not cooperation,” said Alderman Kathleen Bray, who was the town’s paid clerk until she recently resigned for personal reasons.
But Gut doesn’t think it’s adversarial.
“It’s a changing world,” he said. “Everybody is under pressure to reduce expenses.”
This chasm began really widening in January, when the board voted to withhold the $30,000 — something that had never happened before. At the April board meeting, they voted again not to pay. Gut agreed that the resistance came on rather suddenly. But he said there are economic demands on everybody.
“It’s just a difference of opinion,” Gut said.
Aldermen are not impressed with this argument, especially since they feel it all comes from the same pot of money, even if it’s separate accounts.
In addition to the emotional friction, the corporation’s refusal to pay also threatens the town’s ability to pay its bills, Bray said.
“I’m sorry, this is not Briny,” said Alderman Nancy Boczon, clearly exasperated.
At just about every meeting, Boczon talks about how the town is already operating on a shoestring budget, often relying on donated office supplies and hand-me-down equipment.    
“We’re working on nothing,” she said.
With the resignation of Bray, the paid clerk, the town now has an opportunity to save $12,000. Bray’s husband works out of state, and they’re tired of a commuter marriage. She will keep her alderman position and fly back occasionally for council meetings.
Some town residents have grumbled about Bray’s salary and said someone should simply give their time for the job. The position used to be volunteer.
With Bray’s departure, town officials said they’d happily make that change if anyone wants to donate the time.

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