NEW FAIRFIELD – Facing the probability of deep cuts in State funding for the 2017-18 fiscal year, the Board of Finance voted to cap any tax increase at no more than 3.99%. The vote was met with dismay by many attending the meeting, including residents, educators and other town officials.
During the opening public commentary, residents and Board of Education Vice-Chair Dr. Amy Tozzo urged the Board to consider the children of New Fairfield and continue the momentum of improved results, particularly in math, realized over the past few years. Dr. Tozzo mentioned three areas in particular; a math teacher position at Consolidated School, the STEM Coach position at the middle school, and the Special Friends paraprofessionals at Consolidated. The total cost of these three positions/programs, she said, was $152,000. She acknowledged that the Board of Finance will be forced to make cuts, but asked that the give the Board of education a “little wiggle room” to be able to save these programs especially.
The Board then heard a presentation by Robert Lindberg of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., the Town’s insurance consultant. Prior to the presentation, Board Chair Wes Marsh stated that one of the things the Board had discussed with the consultant was if there was any way to decrease medical plan costs in the coming year.
Mr. Lindberg noted that year to date insurance claims were 77.73% of expected. He said that during the last four months of the fiscal year there could be an increase, but he was expecting an overall surplus of just under $350,000 for the year. As of February, 325 employees and their families were covered under the plan.
If the current plan were to be renewed for the same terms and deductibles as the previous year, the cost of the plan (Anthem is the current provider) would increase over $19,000 to $299,801. The Board discussed cutting the expected incurred claims amount by 3%, or just over $173,000, since historically claims have been below budget. The Board also discussed changing the deductibles or limits for some portion of the overall plan for additional savings. All in all, the Board estimated that it could save around $216,000 in total—funds that could perhaps partially replace items that would have to be cut in both budgets.
Gallagher will also see what other insurance companies would charge for the same terms. They would not have pricing available for another three weeks. Mr. Lindberg also stated there was a slight possibility that Anthem might lower their pricing due to competitive pricing pressure as well. The Board will wait to vote on which options to choose until after other quotes from other insurance companies were received.
The Board then began discussing several budget/tax scenarios. One scenario included the full $4.3 million in State cuts and the full proposed budgets (0.69% BOS budget decrease, and 2.54% BOE budget increase). This would mean a tax increase of 12.03%.
Another scenario included $2.3 cuts in State funding with the State paying the teachers’ $2 million retirement contribution, and 0% increase in both the BOS and BOE budgets. This would yield a 5.2% tax increase.
The discussion turned to what the taxpayer could bear. Mr. Marsh noted that if the Board took roughly $216,000 savings realized from medical and paid the $257,000 OPEB out of the Medical Reserve, that savings could drop a tax increase from 5.2% to 4.18%. Board member Cheryl Reedy thought the funds could instead be put back into the two budgets to fund some items that were cut.
Board member Jane Landers stated she felt that savings should be put toward a reduction in a tax increase. She noted that the Board of Selectmen submitted a budget with a slight decreased. She also said that in the last ten years, enrollment has dropped drastically while budgets continued to rise. She said she understood that education requirements have become more complicated, but that this might be the year to find savings rather than increase the budget.
Mr. Marsh stated that the Board had to show that they are “hitting every nook and cranny” to of all pieces of the budget. He noted that the savings to the medical plan were a big piece. He noted that he would like to use any savings found to get the tax increase below 5% and use any remaining savings to lift both budgets up from 0%.
Board member John Hodge made a motion to approve a tax increase of no more than 3.99%. Ms. Landers seconded. Mr. Hodge noted that with the savings already found would get the increase down to 4.18% and that he felt sure the Board would find other cost savings to drive that down to 3.99%.
Ms. Reedy stated that as a taxpayer, “I think that stinks. As a taxpayer, there’s nothing for me to vote for there. I’ve got no roads, I’ve got no progress in my schools and I’m still going to pay 3.99%…I don’t think that just because the State of Connecticut has mismanaged their funds that we don’t need to have our people sacrifice that much. I think that’s too much.”
Mr. Hodge stated “the economy in this area has not bounced back…at the end of the day, I really believe, truly, that for a good portion of our taxpayers, it’s an ability to pay issue.”
After the discussion, the motion was put to a vote and passed four to two.
The Board also voted to replace Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. as insurance consultant with USI Insurance Services.
In his summary comments Mr. Marsh said “3.99% did sound severe, but it’s up to us to put a stake in the ground to see a consensus of where most of us are, and I still think that people should not take away that that means that the town and the Board of Ed budgets will stay at zero. If we continue to find more money and we can bring their budgets off the floor from zero and still stay at 3.99, I think everyone will be happy—and that’s our goal.”
By Greg Slomba