The Board of Selectmen and New Fairfield schools presented their proposed 2020-2021 fiscal year budgets to the Board of Finance and the public on March 7. Board of Finance Chair Wes Marsh gave a brief overview of the day’s agenda and introduced new Alternate BOF member Mark Werner.
The first to present was Board of Education Chair Peggy Katkocin and Superintendent Dr. Patricia Cosentino presented the school budget, with input from Director of Budget & Operations Dr. Richard Sanzo and other school administrators.
The BOE presented a total budget of $44,352,963. This represents an increase of $1,403,520, or 3.27% over the previous fiscal year (2019-20). This increase includes a potential $600,000 in new debt service related to the school building projects. Without this amount the budget increase would be 1.87%.
In reviewing the achievements during the past year, Ms. Katkocin and Dr. Cosentino referred to “points of pride” throughout the district. These included an emphasis on social emotional learning contributing to an overall sense of accomplishment in students, responsive classroom training for Meeting House Hill School staff, expansion of the middle school’s developmental guidance program, the Class of 2019’s 99.1% four year graduation rate, the high school’s six musicians named to the 2020 Western Regional Musicians group, and the growth and evolution of special education programming to better serve students within the district.
In highlighting taxpayers’ return on investment over the past year, in other words what taxpayers are receiving for their dollars, Ms. Katkocin noted the new English Language Learner Teacher enabled the district to increase the amount of students served by the program by 300%, or an additional 30 minutes per week, per student.
She stated that investment in the district’s special education staff increased in-district delivery of learning, saving roughly $360,000 in out of district tuition and transportation.
Dr. Cosentino noted that investment in technology infrastructure provided enhanced network security, and a three to four times increase in broadband speed. She stated that shared cyber services between town and schools provided a cost savings as well as better cybersecurity and disaster preparedness and recovery.
One of the biggest concerns over the years has been mathematics performance. Dr. Cosentino noted that part of the district’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) initiative is the need to expose students to some form of math every day. In the past, math classes were held every other day. A new schedule has been developed to have math account for some part of study hall so that the student will be using math each day.
In terms of staffing, Dr. Cosentino stated that the district would decrease staffing overall by 1.65 full time employees. This included decreasing a total of five teachers in Consolidated School, the Middle School and the High School, and adding one teacher in Meeting House Hill School, one instructional coach for gifted students, and a math instructional coach, over half of which would be funded by a grant.
Further reductions would include two Consolidated School paras, one High School College and Career Para (Guidance Counselors will take on this duty), a part time Middle School para and custodian. Additions of non-certified staff would include an administrative assistant, a High School technician, a part time High School para, and a Director of School Security.
Dr. Sanzo also shared that the district would be offering an early retirement option to roughly 16 qualifying teachers. These teachers would have the option of taking early retirement while remaining on the district’s medical insurance plan, paying the same premium they do now. This, Dr. Sanzo said, would save the district approximately $20,000-$25,000 per position in payroll costs. He said that eligible teachers would be notified shortly and would have until April 2 to accept the offer.
In the public comment section of the meeting, several residents expressed concern over the use of the multipurpose room at Consolidated School for physical education activities when the gym had been deemed unsafe on certain days (i.e. rainy days when the roof leaked). They urged the BOE to consider alternate schedules and increased recess to give students a safe environment to be active.
In the Board of Finance question and answer period, Board Member Cheryl Reedy asked the district administrators to come to the next meeting and highlight the district’s three main priorities and the metrics they would be using to determine how they would achieve them.
She said she wanted to know because in the past the Board had been told that building curriculum and providing teachers with continuing education were most important in driving results, yet that item in the budget had decreased. Assistant Superintendent Julie Luby explained that the past several years were focused on identifying, acquiring, and developing the curriculum. She noted that now that the curriculum is more or less in place, funds allocated for that purpose have been decreased as the cost for training teachers to use the new curriculum is less than acquiring and developing the curriculum itself.
The Board of Selectmen presented the municipal budget next. Presenting for the BOS were First Selectman Pat Del Monaco and Selectman Khris Hall. Ms. Del Monaco noted that the BOS held 12 budget workshops over the past couple of months, meeting with all town department heads for input on their budget needs. Services that make up the municipal budget include road maintenance and plowing, senior services, police, fire & EMS, land use, events and activities, and the library.
The BOS is proposing a municipal budget of $13,229,511, an increase of $712,779, or 5.69% from the previous year. In her review of the proposal, First Selectman Pat Del Monaco noted the Consolidated and High School building projects, economic development, public safety, and long-term capital planning as top town priorities.
Under the proposed budget, municipal payroll would increase from 5.41% from $4,524,851 to $4,769,699. Municipal non-payroll would go up 3.95% from $6,572,255 to $6,831,830. Municipal medical insurance would remain flat at $819,260. Municipal debt service is set to decrease from $148,060 to $135,811. Contribution to Cap & Non would rise from $452,306 to $672,911.
In addressing some of the priorities for the coming fiscal year, Ms. Del Monaco noted that long term capital planning for roads, bridges and drainage, and preventative maintenance on town buildings was essential in working to keep the municipal budget as flat as possible in the coming years. This was especially important, she said, with the impending school building projects.
Another item discussed was the new reserve fund for fire equipment. This fund will be used to save for equipment that reaches the end of its life cycle or needs replacement due to changes in regulations. A recent example cited was a change in the NFPA standards that rendered the department’s existing respirator equipment out of date and incompatible with various features of the new packs, particularly the “buddy” regulators used to provide air to a fellow firefighter if their pack fails or their air runs out. The cost to replace the equipment is 360,000, which both the Town and the fire department were unprepared for.
Salary items discussed primarily had to do with transitioning some positions from part time to full time and adding positions due to increased workload. An example of the former was the proposed change of the Fire Marshal position from part time to full time. Ms. Del Monaco noted that with 235 commercial or multi-family buildings in town, and with the inspections and follow up inspections, school fire drills, plan reviews and new construction site visits, the workload is greater than what can be handled in a 22 hour part time work week.
Ms. Del Monaco presented a review of other fire marshal positions in Connecticut towns of 12,000 to 19,000 residents. She noted that the overwhelming majority of the positions was full time with an average salary of $71,995 and a mid-range of $71,000. Currently, New Fairfield’s Fire Marshal earns around $44,000.
Ms. Del Monaco also referenced the work of the Economic Development Commission and its recent survey of local residents and business owners. She noted that 80% or respondents to the survey said they would support the use of town funds for infrastructure improvements. She also noted that barriers to potential businesses coming to town are a lack of potable water, sewers and natural gas outlets.
Considering that, she said, the proposed budget includes $70,000 for a sewer study to be conducted to determine the feasibility of one day installing a sewer system in the town’s commercial/business district and potentially hooking it into Danbury’s system.
The Board of Finance tasked the Selectmen to come to the next BOF meeting armed with more detailed figures regarding proposed capital projects to give the BOF a better sense of the thought process/need of each project.
Ms. Reedy praised the Selectmen for clearly listing their priorities, then asked them to return with a plan to measure the success or failure of each.
BOF member Anthony Yorio asked if town disaster plans had be updated and if the Selectmen felt any of the expanded positions would be scaled back after, say the school building projects were completed or new disaster/emergency management plans were put in place.
Ms. Del Monaco said she thought that they would not be scaled back, stating that in the past, the town had been running on a “bare bones” budget and that this proposed budget reflected a return to providing services and safety to residents that had been falling short over the past ten years.
Mr. Marsh also stressed that the percentage increase in both the town and school budgets does not result in a direct percentage increase in taxes. The total increase in budget expenditures, he said, is comprised of operational expenses, increase in medical coverage expenses, and debt servicing expense. This is offset, he noted by revenue generated from personal property and business taxes, internal income (generated from fees charged by the Town as well as interest income), and State funding.
Together, the combined education and municipal budgets as presented total $51,952,173, an increase of $2,366,091 or 4.77%. Currently, if both budgets were to be implemented, the mil rate would rise by 4.79%.
Over the course of the next several weeks, the Board of Finance will meet with the Boards of Education and Selectmen to discuss both budgets in more depth and to make or suggest changes or reductions. Once the final budgets are agreed upon, the final budget proposals will be brought to a town vote in late April.
An overview of the Board of Education’s Recommended Budget can be found by going to www.newfairfield.org and clicking “About New Fairfield” then “New Fairfield Public Schools”, and scrolling down to “2020-2021 Proposed Budget”. The BOS budget can be found at www.newfairfield.org and clicking “Municipal Budget”.
The BOF will be holding budget meetings every Wednesday in March at 7:30pm in the Community Center. The public is encouraged to attend.
By Greg Slomba