At the March 18 virtual meeting of the Board of Finance, Town Finance Director and Treasurer Ed Sbordone noted that the decision had been made to postpone the sale of bonds, which had been scheduled to be offered earlier that day. The reason for the postponement, he said, “considering the extreme and unprecedented market volatility, particularly in the municipal market, we have decided to postpone the upcoming sale. The initial plan is to come back and sell in a month. Hopefully by then there will be some semblance of normalcy and predictability in the market…if not, we may postpone it even further.”
He noted that the previous week the municipal market went “haywire” saying that they were expecting a bid rate of 1.7%, but that another bid earlier in the week had gone at 3.1%, which was too high, and would have driven the debt servicing expense much higher than the $600,000 allotted in the proposed budget. He said that waiting a couple of months would not have much effect on cash flow for the project at this early stage in the project.
First Selectman Pat Del Monaco was on hand to provide the BOF with more detailed information on the Town’s long-term capital plan. The Board had requested that the selectmen provide an in-depth breakdown of each project and how an estimated funding amount had been arrived at for each.
In all, the plan outlines the proposals and parameters for 12 projects most of which will have funds appropriated beginning in the 2020-2021 fiscal year and continuing for up to five years. The purpose is to avoid paying large sums all at once down the road for projects that can be anticipated now.
The total amount proposed for the coming fiscal year is $346,000. Some of the projects the Town would be saving for include study/repair of bridges under 20 feet, town wide drainage issues, pedestrian safety (crosswalks/flashing warning signs), Bigalow Road realignment, the Yale Drive spillway (erosion issues), among others. Amounts outlined for the following four years, but not a part of next year’s proposed budget, average almost $500,000 per year to complete all the anticipated projects. Several projects, including the Yale Drive spillway project would be completed within two years, while funds for two projects (Sr. Center Dam & Pond evaluation and repair and Ball Pond Watershed study) would not be started until 2021-22.
Board Member Anthony Yorio said he would like to know what the plan would look like if it was reduced by $100,000. Ms. Del Monaco noted that she would be reluctant to do that and would rather look to cut in other areas first because, she said, she is trying to flatten costs out. She stated that if $100,000 were to be cut this year, it would have to be made up in future years causing a bigger “jump” in cost. She also pointed out that delaying projects further would cause them to get worse, resulting in greater cost.
Mr. Yorio thanked Ms. Del Monaco for explaining the various projects and the projected costs. He noted that all the costs were estimates and that there might be a chance to offset some costs with grant money. He said, “A lot of everything that was presented were soft estimates or best guess. If you could find a way to make these numbers even more precise so we’d have more confidence in the number, it’s just an estimate, and in some cases it looks like you’re trying to fund the account so you’re eligible or take priority in grant positioning, and that’s a great idea. But I don’t necessarily think we need to have the projects fully funded in two business cycles.” He went on to say that he was concerned that funds would be appropriated in future years without the potential for grants being considered, resulting in possible over-budgeting.
Ms. Del Monaco noted that the numbers for the next two fiscal years were “pretty solid”, but that the numbers in future years were less so, but were there to account for what might be needed so that the Town could plan for the eventuality rather than have it come up unexpectedly.
Ms. Del Monaco then addressed previous questions from the Board regarding the proposed move of the Town Fire Marshal from a part time to a full-time position. She reviewed the Fire Marshal’s responsibilities and outlined several new items including weekly site inspections of the school building sites, conduct 7 fire drills and three crisis drills per school per year, participate in an annual municipal crisis drill, and actively participate in school safety committees and school safety planning.
Board Member Cheryl Reedy said that the Fire Marshal had always been a part time position in the past because the permitting and work involved for commercial structures compared the inspections and work done for residential and commercial structures conducted building and zoning officials was much less. She said she was struggling with this potential move because she did not see the workload requiring it as well as the fact that it would mean adding benefits and everything that would go with that.
Ms. Del Monaco said that the majority of towns the size of New Fairfield have gone to a full-time fire marshal position. She speculated that this might have been due to changes to the fire codes and additional duties that position now needs to perform.
At its previous meeting, the Board had discussed using any potential surplus from the current year to fund some items in the proposed budget. Mr. Sbordone went back and reviewed the actual expenditures and revenue to the budget and estimated there would be slightly more than a $400,000 surplus. Taking that into account, he checked to see what effect using those funds to pay for expenditure items in the proposed budget would have on the Unassigned General Fund (UGF).
The Board, in conjunction with the Town’s independent auditors, had determined that expenditures should be no more than 16.67% of the UGF. If the town were to use $400,000 in surplus from the 2019-20 fiscal year to fund expenditures in the 2020-21 fiscal year, the ratio of expenditures to the UGF would be 16.81%–still an acceptable level.
Mr. Yorio noted, “This leaves us some room to start pulling out some capital items and using our surplus.”
Ms. Reedy agreed, saying that using the surplus while being able to stay above the 16.67% mark the Board had set was critical and “much needed”.
Board Chair Wes Marsh then asked members where they stood considering the information discussed on the type of increase, noting that the current proposed budgets would result in a 4.79% increase. All indicated that they would want the increase to be below 3%, especially in light of events of the past week.
That would mean cutting a total of $892,000 to get to a 2.97% increase. With $470,000 already accounted for in use surplus and several other items, Mr. Sbordone estimated the Board would have to find an additional $422,000 in the education and/or municipal budget proposals to come in under 3%.
The Board felt that this was a realistically achievable goal. After some discussion, it was decided to hold off giving the BOE and BOS specific dollar number cuts until after hearing from the medical rep at the Board’s next meeting.
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 Board of Selectman budget can be found at www.newfairfield.org and clicking “Municipal Budget”.
The Board of Finance will be holding budget meetings every Wednesday in March at 7:30 pm at https://us04web.zoom.us/j/237333101 Meeting ID: 237 333 101. Call in is 1-929-205-6099.
By Greg Slomba