by Wesley Ratko
Controversy arose at the March meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association board over the approval of the Chestnut Hill Local’s annual budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins April 1.
Instead of an approved budget, Thursday night’s meeting adjourned with a “continuing resolution” that will allow the Local to continue operating at current budget levels for three months while a subcommittee works to assess the strategic future of the Local and report back to the board about what steps, if any, should be taken.
This came as a result of concerns from members of the Budget and Finance Committee about whether to approve a budget for the Local that contains allocation for new investment.
In his review of the budget documents circulated to board members, Tony Reilly, board treasurer, noted a demonstrable decline in print ad revenue over the last seven years, an opposite trend to other sources of income, which all increased over the same seven years.
Board member Richard Snowden said that advertising in the Local didn’t get results, and that both the commercial and the residential community felt that the content of the Local was primarily negative.
“Our local newspaper is a failure,” Snowden said. “I am not going to vote in favor of what is a content rat hole.”
Board member Elizabeth Bales expressed similar frustrations.
“The ad revenue is not forthcoming because the content doesn’t reflect what advertisers want to see,” she said.
Past action by the board required the Local to pay into a reserve fund. Reilly raised the issue of whether to reduce payments to that reserve fund in order to invest in equipment for the Local. The Local has paid off its debt, and placed $74,000 into its reserve fund.
Publisher Larry Hochberger argued in favor of investing in the Local as a way to raise revenue, with the caveat that the proposed investment wouldn’t result in additional debt or dipping into the reserve fund to do so.
“This is time to invest in the paper,” said Hochberger. “We’ve turned the corner, and in order to boost our productivity we need to invest and try some things.”
Bales expressed her concern that the editor was not present to discuss their concerns about content. Hochberger responded by saying he was “out of state.”
Board member Kristine Sullivan said that with $74,000 in the reserve fund, there was less than the $150,000 required by the previous board action.
Hochberger assured her that any investment would not take money from the reserve fund and that contributions to it would continue.
Board member Jean Wedgewood complemented Hochberger on his efforts to find additional revenue streams in the wake of declining traditional ad revenues.
Hochberger said there is a movement to place more of the Local’s content online. “These are conversations we’re having,” he said. “We need to decide how much of the content we make available for free while charging for the same content at the newsstand.”
Snowden moved to defer a vote on the budget until they heard a report from the editor.
Board member Larry McEwen said the question of content wasn’t something that should hold up approval of the budget.
Board member Walter Sullivan urged approval of the budget placed before the board by the Budget and Finance Committee, and recommended saving the content discussion for another day. Board member Laura Lucas concurred, suggesting the Executive Committee meet to discuss content issues.
The board voted unanimously to extend the current budget for three months.
Lucas said she wanted to pass a budget that the Budget and Finance Committee was comfortable with.
Board member John Cacciamani said the Budget and Finance Committee needed more strategic direction for the Local before it could approve a budget.
At Bales’ urging, Tilley agreed to appoint a subcommittee that can address the issues with the Local’s content. She was adamant that the body responsible for doing so not be the executive committee. This committee will assess the issue and report back to the board.
Joyce Lenhardt, vice president of the CHCA’s Physical Division, referred to a board retreat held last fall at which newspaper operations were discussed. She urged the committee to consider some of that discussion in its work.
“The Local is the mouthpiece of this organization,” Snowden said. “If we don’t fix the Local, we don’t fix our other issues.”
Tilley closed out the discussion by saying that while things do need to improve, the discussion was positive. He expressed his satisfaction with the overall budget process.
“It’s a big budget this year,” said community manager Celeste Hardester.
Community Association funds were allocated to all for the hiring of a part-time professional to assist the office with marketing and “maintaining the profile of the Chestnut Hill Community Association.”
That budget was approved without debate.
In other actions:
• Board member Laura Lucas, who is also co-chair of the Community Fund Drive, reported that the annual fund drive was completed, having collected a total of $92,621, thanks to “a flurry of activity at the end.” Chestnut Hill Hospital was the largest donor, with a contribution of $20,000. Lucas also reviewed the grant requests for 2014, which totaled approximately $200,000, and the proposal for how the funds should be distributed.
• The board welcomed Jeanne Connolly as a representative of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. “I’m interested in making the place continue to work,” she said.
• Board member Stephanie Chomentowski introduced the nominated Judges of Election for 2014. These include Dan Mueller, Tom Cullen, Laura Lucas, and Wendy Lewis. Chomentowski, noting that of these four the board may not be as familiar as with Lewis, noted that she is executive director of The Parkinson Council, a Chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation. The board approved all four judges without debate.