The Board of Finance approved the final markups of the municipal and education budgets at its regular meeting April 19. Both budgets are less than the previous year’s. The municipal budget was approved by the Board at $10,911,346, a decrease of 0.35% over the previous year. The Board approved an education budget of $40,905,128, a decrease of 1.43% from the 2016-2017 budget (operations expenditures would increase $485,112 while benefit related expenses would decrease). The budgets would result in a tax increase of 3.97%. At its March 29th meeting, the Board voted to keep any tax increase below 4.00%.
Anticipated State financing cuts of as much as $4.6 million meant that there could not be an increase in budgets from the previous year. The Board of Selectmen had submitted a budget of $10,873,665 (0.69% decrease) while the Board of Education had submitted a budget of $42,553,047 (2.54% increase).
Board of Finance Chair Wes Marsh noted that, “this is a year like I’ve never seen before, I think like none of us have seen before, and the reason we’re doing things that are terrible is not because of what we’re doing here, but because of what the state is doing to us.”
As it was, the BOF took a calculated risk, gambling that the State would only cut $2.6 million in financing and not pass on $2 million for past contributions to teachers’ retirement benefits to the Town. The Board looked for other means of funding including using $257,035 from the Town’s medical contingency fund to fund GASB 45 (medical expenses for retired town and schools employees) and refinancing some long term debt for a savings of $159,600. A presentation by USI Insurance Services, the Town’s new insurance consulting firm, yielded $216,342 in medical insurance savings.
While the Board was able to find some cost savings, it was not able to restore cut line items identified by the Board of Education as most critical. These included a math teacher/instructional coach position at Consolidated School, STEM Coach positions at the middle school and high school, the Special Friends paraprofessionals at Consolidated, two school safety advocates, a technology operations teacher and a district transition teacher. These items would add approximately $330,381 to the school budget.
Mr. Marsh stated he was disappointed that the list was not prioritized by the Board of Education as had been requested. He noted that as things currently stood, anything added back to the budget would push the tax increase above 3.97%.
A motion was made to approve the municipal budget. This was approved unanimously. Another motion was made to approve the education budget. Before voting, the Board discussed possibly restoring items from the BOE’s list. Board member John Hodge noted that since the list was not prioritized, no items should be restored. He did say that if the State’s funding cuts were not as bad as expected when the State budget was finalized this summer or fall, those items could be revisited at that time. The motion to approve the education budget was then voted on and approved four to one with Board member Michael Cammarota being the only dissenting vote.
Chairman Marsh then proposed to bring the Board of Finance recommended budget municipal budget of $10,911.36 from the general fund, $510,085 from the capital & non-recurring fund, and $828,051 from other governmental funds, and the education budget of $40,905,128 from the general fund and $148,000 from the capital & and non-recurring fund to a town meeting. The motion passed unanimously.
There was also a discussion regarding including non-binding advisory questions to the budget referendum ballot. The two questions and answer choices proposed were: Is the recommended annual Board of Selectmen town budget too high, too low, or just right? and Is the recommended annual Board of Education budget too high, too low, or just right?
Chairman Marsh stated that the purpose of the questions is to let the Board know if residents felt the budget was too high or too low. If the budget were to be voted down and the majority of voters respond that the budget is too low, it would guide the Board in how best to proceed.
A motion was made to include the non-binding questions on the referendum ballot. Mr. Hodge was not sure the Registrar of Voters could accommodate three responses. Interim Finance Director Ed Sordone replied that he had checked and they could accommodate only two responses on the ballot. In light of that, Board member Jane Landers proposed an amendment to the motion to eliminate the “just right” response from the proposed questions. This was approved and the motion passed.
The next step will be for the Board of Selectmen to set a date for the annual town meeting and a date seven to fourteen days after that to vote on the referendum. Mr. Spordone indicated that the Board of Selectmen intends to give warning of a town meeting on May 3, and the referendum vote would most likely be set for May 13. The BOS was set to hold a special meeting on April 21 to set a town meeting date.
The next Board of Finance meeting will be held Wednesday, May 17 at 7:30 pm in the Community Room on Route 37.
The full budget can be found in the April 27th print edition of the Town Tribune. More information on municipal spending can be found on the Town of New Fairfield’s website http://www.newfairfield.org/.
Other articles related to the New Fairfield budgets can be found by searching “Budgets” on www.thetowntribune.com.
By Greg Slomba