As you see in this week’s Town Tribune, next year’s budget, town and education together, is published for your review. The Board of Finance approved this budget for publication at its meeting on May 13th. The next step in this year’s unusual process is for the Board of Finance to adopt this budget and set the mill rate at its June 3rd meeting.
If the Board makes no further changes, the mill rate, and thus the tax increase, will be a little less than 1% for the next fiscal year.
Governor Lamont’s Executive Order earlier this year prevents us from holding a town meeting and a town vote (referendum) to pass the budget as we have done in the past. The executive order’s intent is to limit gatherings of people, maintain social distancing and keep people as safe as possible from COVID-19. Under the Executive Order the Board of Selectmen must authorize the Board of Finance to approve a budget and set the mill rate for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020 without a vote by the taxpayers.
The budget process this year has been entirely different from other years. We could no longer meet face to face and had to rely on computer online meetings using ZOOM as well as emails to communicate and hear public comments. Every year public comment helps us do our best to arrive at a budget that we believe balances the many different needs of the town and schools while being sensitive to the taxpayers’ ability to pay. This year that balance was especially difficult to reach given the financial realities many residents are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But taxpayers really rose to the occasion, sending us more than 25 e-mails as well as joining our Zoom meetings in record numbers – one meeting had 72 participants, way more than we get at our in-person meetings! Thank you to all of you who took the time to write or call or comment at a meeting. Your input was invaluable!
As you might imagine, public input this year was split almost evenly between those who did not want the education budget cut at all and those who did not want any tax increase at all. Thus, the budget in today’s paper is a compromise, as all budgets are, but a compromise unanimously agreed to by all members of the Board of Finance. It seeks to preserve as much of the school and town requested spending as possible while holding the overall increase to a relatively low 1%. Remember, the increased debt service for the new school construction project next year alone is 1.25%. But some long term debt has been retired, and the Board decided to fund some long term bridge and drainage projects that have been pending for several years from the town’s rainy day fund balance. We took a bit more risk this year in our self-funded medical insurance fund but still have a respectable unbudgeted fund balance in that fund.
In addition to all that, the town and the schools provided us with their estimated savings from the current fiscal year as a result of having their facilities (but not their operations) shut down for the past three months. Some of those funds will be set aside at year end to help cover any COVID-19 costs related to reopening schools in the fall and/or providing additional assistance to students to help make up for any learning gaps resulting from the last three months of online learning. Other funds unspent at year end may be used to purchase capital items that had to be cut from the budget request such as a town snowplow truck.
Overall we think this is a good budget given the circumstances this year. There is an increase in taxes for next year, but it is modest at 1%. Enough of the budget requests of the town and the schools remain to keep both entities moving forward and making progress toward their goals. Capital infrastructure projects have not been kicked down the road or put off but funded from the surplus available in the town’s rainy day fund. We have maintained enough of that rainy day fund and the current year’s savings to help cover costs that may materialize next year due to COVID-19 and the economic downturn. And we have not put that money into the operating budgets of either the town or schools to build on in future years but specifically held it to cover unique one-time expenses next year if needed. We hope if taxpayers had been able to vote on this budget, that they would agree it was acceptable in a very tough year.
Board of Finance members did not welcome nor want the responsibility of deciding on the budget and the mil rate this year on our own. More than anything, we look forward to getting back to normal with the budget process next year that will include a taxpayer vote. Let us all hope that is possible. And in the meantime, if you want to provide any further comments on this budget, be sure to drop us an e-mail at BOF@newfairfield.com or speak up at our next meeting on May 27th before we finalize the budget and set the mil rate on June 3rd.
Until then, please stay safe.