At their Wednesday, January 18 meeting, New Fairfield’s Board of Finance (BOF) spent multiple hours discussing the revised plans for capital and non-recurring expenses to fund with surplus monies. The scaled-back plans were submitted by the Town’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) and Board of Education (BOE) at the request of the BOF who had asked for priorities for 25% of each surplus—both revised plans exceeded that amount. The BOE’s revised plan was in priority order; the BOS’s was not.
After much information was relayed about items on each list, the BOF voted (after a round of a rejected motion for the BOE) to return $95,000 in surplus funds to the BOE for adding air conditioning for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade rooms at the elementary campus to support special education/Individual Education Plan (IEP) needs and to replace flooring at New Fairfield Middle School. Not funded was an HVAC project that will be added to the 2023-2024 budget and a new dump truck for buildings and grounds. BOF members encouraged administrators to seek out grant opportunities to help fund the vehicle.
The BOS was approved to receive $141,550 in surplus funds for spending on six items: police technology and accreditation; eFinance software upgrade; well testing; mower/tractor replacement; and a housing opportunity survey. There was much discussion on each item, with debate regarding items such as shelves to help support issues with the Town’s vault for critical papers. A problem for decades, the vault will continue to be a point of discussion. Reedy asked that Town officials speak with the State about opportunities for secure digital archives. Another item discussed at length was a Housing Opportunities Survey that is needed to investigate thoughts on affordable housing, a hot-button issue in New Fairfield.
Before the discussion began on the items above, BOE Chair Wes Marsh explained the medical fund in detail to assuage fears that the maximum amount of surplus is needed to fund medical. “I don’t think we need to focus on trying to push everything into the reserve fund right now because we’ve got cash that we’re going to be putting back in once we approve the budget for first of July,” he said. BOF member Cheryl Reedy expressed thanks for a streamlined monthly medical report that will cut through “a lot of estimates on top of estimates on top of estimates, which made them not very reasonable numbers.” Reedy noted that “We’re going to budget $7 million, just like we budget for expenditures and capital. And then as the months go on, as the year goes on, hopefully that projection is valid. And if that projection is valid, we never have to use the Medical Reserve Fund. In fact, there have been many years that I’ve been on the board, we’ve never touched the Medical Reserve Fund.” The medical reserve fund will receive $732,114 in surplus.
Reedy went on to explain that “we have been doing self-insurance in this town for a little over 30 some years. We have saved millions of dollars and 99.9% of the time the Board of Finance has guessed right. This particular year, the first year you guys were on the board, we guessed wrong. I’m sorry about that. But I do think that we have an opportunity when we deal with next year’s budget to try and correct that as well as some tonight when we deal with the surplus.” She stressed that for next year, “we’re gonna have to budget medical bills 100% of claims and not shortcut data.”
Board of Finance member Mike Cammarota expressed regret over the need to step down from this board after years of service. He explained that a new job opportunity will not allow him to serve in the capacity of an elected official. Receiving many thanks from fellow members, Cammarota said, “I’ve really enjoyed my time with all of you, particularly Cheryl and Wes who have served with me for the longest time but everybody that I’ve worked with, it has been an honor and a privilege to represent New Fairfield. I hope at some point in the future to do more in public service because I think public service is a gift that we all get to give to each other.” The remaining five regular voting members of the Board will vote on appointees in a special meeting at a future, to be determined date.
Terry Friedman, New Fairfield’s Town Treasurer, explained that the fourth round of bonding for the new schools—a $12 million bonding—is coming up in March. “The current intent,” she said, is to “use the same structure for this funding as we used for the last two, which means that we will approach the funding assuming that we are going to defer out 25% of the first year’s principal payments into the later years. We did look at alternate methods to be able to defer even more of the principal payments, but they were not in the town’s best interest in my opinion, they cost the town more, up to probably $400 to $500k more.” Given the current market fluctuations, “We will not know the interest rate or how much bond premium we have until the actual bonding happens in the March timeframe,” she said. Friedman also explained that the Town needs to float $4 million for the school projects, as the projects will wait, once completed, for “the final arc” of reimbursements, which may take from several months to multiple years.
There was a tense conversation regarding a second BOF member request for up-to-date fees that have been spent on legal matters surrounding the bus lot, with Marsh questioning the need to know this information and other members emphasizing the importance of transparency. Reedy said, “when we have two boards engaged in a legal controversy…we think the Board of Finance has the right to know total amounts.” It was noted that this information could be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Later, she made her thoughts plain, “I just don’t understand why we want to play ‘I’ve got a secret.’ We know that we have a controversy between two boards and we know that it has been going on for a while. We know that there are big groups of people on both sides of the issue…Just tell us how much we’ve spent on one side and the other.”
The next regular Board of Finance meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 15, 7:30 p.m.
By Sarah Opdahl