The Brookfield Board of Finance (BOF) approved a proposed budget of $53,334,532 on Tuesday, March 30, which would result in a 3.23 percent tax rate increase, or 0.61 mills, if passed unchanged.
The 2010-2011 proposed BOF budget calls for a 3.33 percent spending increase, which, due to a lull in new revenues, translates to a 3.23 percent increase in the tax rate. This finalized budget is not the final budget; Brookfield residents will have the opportunity to give their input at two public hearings, the first on and the second on , both in the Brookfield High School auditorium.
"Following the two public hearings and in consideration of the input, we'll reconvene on April 20 to finalize the budget," BOF Chairman Bill Tinsley explained. The final budget will be presented at the Town Meeting on May 4 before it is put to a vote on . "We would like as many people in Brookfield to participate in this process as possible," the chairman said.
At Tuesday's meeting, the last gathering of the BOF before the public hearings, the Board of Education (BOE), represented by Superintendent Anthony Bivona, BOE Chairman Michael Fenton and the district's Director of Business and Technology Art Colley, presented three possible budget scenarios as a means of reaching the BOF's target for reducing the school budget. Restraining themselves to a 2.5 to 3 percent spending increase over the 2009-2010 budget would have forced the district to eliminate the equivalent of 2.2 full-time teaching positions at a time when the district is already feeling the pain of being short staffed.
"What we originally presented in terms of the 5.7 percent increase is what is required to maintain a stable level," Bivona explained. The Board of Selectmen (BOS) and BOF brought the spending increase down to a "maintenance budget" at a 3.7 percent increase, however, "any further reductions to our budget obviously would have a significant impact in terms of offerings to our students," Bivona stated.
The BOE prepared potential budget scenarios and their implications to the school system, however, as a result of health insurance renegotiations (a savings of $355,263) and the release of surplus funds from the health insurance account ($900,000), the town was able to restore three of nine teaching positions lost over the last two years, as well as a police officer removed in last year's budget.
Using that funding, the BOE will be able to hire another teacher at Huckleberry Hill Elementary School (which has been severely understaffed for the district's class-size goals), a fifth grade guidance counselor at Whisconier Middle School and a literacy specialist at the high school, a position that was removed from the budget a long time ago according to Bivona, before he was superintendent.
The Police Department will be able to rehire their 31st officer (formerly the narcotics officer), lost to cuts in the 2009-10 budget.
The BOF determined not to use all of the surplus in the insurance account in a single budget year, so as not to produce a 'hole' or 'cliff' in future years that would have to be filled with tax dollars or reduced services. The board decided to allocate $400,000 to the 2010-11 budget, and discussed using $300,000 in 2011-2012 and $200,000 in 2012-2013, weaning the budget off one-time cash.
Tinsley expressed his reservations over the final proposed budget, contending that it didn't go far enough in reducing expenses and that the use of one-time windfalls should be avoided. "We've talked a lot in Brookfield over the last year or so about the need to look at the long term and we're here talking about a budget year with one-time funds for an ongoing expense," Tinsley argued. At the same time, "we have costs that are substantially out of profile with the private sector and they continue to grow," he said, referring to salary increases for government employees at a time when private sector incomes are falling.
"While I think everybody in town would certainly like it if we had more flexibility, the constraints that we as a town work under, from government regulations to government requirements on employees, the reality is that it is a negotiated thing," BOF member Ron Jaffe said, "The only way these things will change, the only way the environment will change for us to be able to impact things, is to change things on the federal or state level." Without being able to renegotiate salaries, and faced with the larger class sizes and the elimination of valued educational services, Jaffe advocated using the one-time $400,000 to offset cuts. "The $400,000 gets us down to that range, that's the discussion I'd like to have with the town at our meeting phase."
Board Vice-Chairman Robert Belden made the motion to finalize the proposed budget. "First of all," he began, "Let's start with where we started the process. A 4.5 percent increase from the Board of Selectman – it was a maintenance budget, nothing extra in it. Insurance negotiations got us to 3.5 percent."
The vice-chair laid out four priorities for the budget process moving forward: "After all the town has been through and the schools have been through over the past few years, I would draw the line at reducing staffing at the schools, they've been hurt. Second, I do think we need to hold our capital and debt flat year over year," investing in the capital fund as the town's debt decreases and visa versa. "Third, I do think that some of this money that was on the balance sheet from the taxpayers should go back to the taxpayers," he continued, asserting that the health insurance surplus should be used to mitigate the tax increase. Fourth, "There are a few investment places that we need to put money back into," namely the narcotics officer and $87,000 that was moved from the municipal IT expense line to the school district's capital fund. "The actual proposal is over half-a-million dollars less than what the Board of Selectmen brought to us," Belden added, noting that the "two big drivers were the balance sheet and the health plan renegotiations."
After three hours of discussion, the budget passed with a vote of 4 to 2, with Tinsley and board member Irv Agard dissenting.