Last year at budget time the BOF was faced with considerable uncertainty about the amount of state revenue to include in the budget. The Governor was calling for huge cuts in state aid to municipalities and the legislature was paralyzed, failing to act until long after state law required New Fairfield to have a budget in place at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1st. If the proposed cuts to our Town’s typical state revenue had come to pass, we would have had to raise taxes by more than 12% last year just to cover those cuts. Alternatively, if we had raised taxes by more than 12% and those cuts didn’t come to pass, we would have collected way too much from taxpayers.
So, what did the BOF do to manage this risk? We took a page from Solomon and decided to ignore the least likely threatened state cuts, not approve any increase in spending for either the town or the education budget, and raise enough in taxes to cover about 50% of the remaining exposure for loss of state revenue. In the end, as you no doubt noticed, your taxes for this year increased by almost 4%, about twice as much as in the past few years.
As fate would have it, the state legislature did finally act and restored most municipal aid, but did not pass the state budget until October, four months late. New Fairfield had dodged a bullet for this fiscal year, at least, but now we were faced with an anticipated sizeable budget surplus for the current fiscal year. Then in November, faced again with a shortfall in anticipated revenue in the state budget, the Governor announced more cuts to municipal aid in the current fiscal year to balance the state budget. At this point we don’t know exactly what state revenue New Fairfield will receive in the current fiscal year before June 30, 2018, but it’s likely to be significantly more than we budgeted for.
To add to all this, the financial position of the State of CT is terrible and it is unlikely to improve in the short term. For whatever reason the State of CT has always chosen to manage and pay for the pension for all public-school teachers in the state, including New Fairfield teachers. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, under leadership from both Democrats and Republicans, the state has not funded the teachers’ retirement fund as it should., and it is now only 52% funded. The state owes the teachers’ retirement fund $148 billion dollars, yes that’s billion! (Teachers pay 6% into the pension fund themselves.) New Fairfield’s share of all this, for our teachers, should the state choose to pass this liability on to the Town, as it has threatened to do, is $70 million of unfunded liability. The state’s financial situation is not expected to improve until 2036 according to the Town’s auditors, O’Connor Davies. The auditors say the only way the BOF can protect taxpayers from a huge tax increase in the future, if the state should decide to pass that liability onto the Town, is to slowly, over the next few years, increase the Town’s fund balance, our rainy-day fund, that should be called upon in case that were to happen.
If you’ve followed all this, you can see that the Board of Finance really needs your input on how you would like us to manage this risk to the Town and the taxpayers, especially as we work on next year’s budget. Some would like us to use the excess revenue we will likely have at the end of June to hold down taxes next year and worry about big state cuts when or if they occur. Others suggest we put the excess revenue into the town’s fund balance to build it up in case that rainy day comes. Still others say we should use this mini-windfall to increase spending for education or to improve town infrastructure. And, in the past month, we have heard from many of you that you’d like those funds set aside to pay for increased school security for our community’s children, i.e. additional School Resource Officers, more mental health programs, infrastructure hardening, etc. But, since you all pay the taxes, we’d like to hear from more of you. What do you think we should do?
Let us hear from you at one of our weekly Wednesday night budget meetings in March, starting at 7:30 p.m., in the Community Room at the Senior Center. You can watch our meetings live on cable channels 99 or 194 or by live streaming from the town website, www.newfairfield.org. We have public comment at every Board of Finance meeting at both the beginning and the end of the agenda, And you can also contact us through the Board of Finance page on the Town’s website at www.newfairfield.org or directly by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re still saving a chair for you!