The Board of Finance (BOF) met Tuesday night, May 17, to adjust the 2011-12 budget proposal after that the education portion of failed to pass by a majority of voters. The revised budget proposal, set to be voted on Saturday, May 28, reduces the appropriation request by $150,000, from $55,464,000 to $55,314,000.
The changes reduce the spending increase year-over-year from 3.11 percent to 2.85 percent and the tax rate increase from 2.9 percent to 2.4 percent. The lower tax rate is achieved through the $150,000 reduction in the spending request and $110,000 in new revenues to be realized through the state budget.
The unanimous consensus of the board was to leave the municipal side of the budget alone, as that portion passed the first referendum by 106 votes. (Both the municipal and education budgets must pass in the same referendum before either is approved.)
“The voters said, ‘We’re OK with this one,’” BOF Vice Chairman Bob Belden said of the town budget. “Not overwhelmingly — it wasn’t dramatic — but in fact it passed.”
After some discussion of potential cuts to the municipal budget, the BOF moved unanimously not to alter it.
Turning toward the other components of the budget, First Selectman Bill Davidson asked the board to consider “two things, in my perception the voters were telling us: the education budget is too high and taxes are too high — but they don’t necessarily have a one-to-one relationship.”
“I think we do need to have some consideration to the revenue side,” he said, as “the education cut that I have in mind does not get us to the tax rate that I would like to get to.”
With the state budget signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy, the town is expecting an additional $110,000 through the Manufacturing PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes), restored to the state budget before it was approved. (A Connecticut law, designed to stimulate industry, prohibits municipalities from taxing manufacturing properties, however the state reimburses towns through the PILOT program. Funding for the program was removed from the budget originally proposed by Malloy, however it was reinstated after an outcry from municipal leaders.)
The PILOT revenues were not included in the “uncertain revenues” cited in early budget discussions and represent a new revenue source for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Davidson suggested that the BOF cut $100,000 from the education budget and that the overall reduction to the tax rate could be supplemented by the unexpected revenues.
“$100,000 is reasonable and I think it’s responsive to the vote we got,” BOF member Ron Jaffe said, noting that the narrow margin of defeat on the education side (nine votes) “was a statistic tie in terms of the actual vote.”
“My rationale is that it’s responsive and that I have absolute faith that the Board of Ed will deal with it in a responsible manner,” he added.
“We have a vote that is very, very close and we’ve received a lot of written correspondence and we’ve heard a lot of speakers and the input that we’re getting is very, very far apart,” Tinsley said. “The input that we’re getting seems to be ‘don’t make any changes whatsoever,’ put it back the same way and on the other hand the input has been predominantly ‘freeze the budget,’ same as last year. That difference is a whole lot more than $100,000.”
Tinsley suggested the board consider reducing education funding by $500,000, effectively freezing salary increases for teaching staff district wide. He suggested three ways in which salaries could be controlled to adjust for that reduction.
“There are three levers,” he explained, “A pay freeze — which would have to include concessions from the unions — some degree of unpaid furlough leaves — I’m not sure if that’s allowable under contract —and the third lever is how many teachers we have.”
The board members all agreed that the first two “levers” were unlikely or not applicable and that the size of the staff would be the only place to cut costs.
“You’re talking about eight or nine teachers,” Tinsley said.
“I think we as a group need to realize we have 1,800 people who voted against this budget and 1,800 people who voted for this budget,” Belden said. “We do have a very vocal group who are very concentrated on tax rate, for good reasons, and a very vocal group who concentrates on the schools… We need to take the action for those who are very sensitive to tax rate but not destroy the services that we have,” namely the school system.
That said, Belden suggested reducing the education budget by $150,000 to $250,000, “Something that’s bearable but not something that goes after the services.”
Board members Jerry Friedrich and Secretary Irv Agard had similar ranges in mind.
“We need to take a cut out of the education side,” Agard agreed, suggesting between $100,000 and $200,000, “enough to be more than a token.”
After motions to submit the education budget unchanged and to reduce it by $500,000 failed to gain a second, Belden made a motion to reduce it by $150,000, which was seconded by Agard. The motion passed four to two, with Tinsley dissenting because the reduction was not large enough and BOF member Jennifer Tomaino rejecting any cuts to the education budget.
“We were anticipating it would be somewhere in this range — $100,000 to $150,000,” Superintendent Anthony Bivona said after the decision. “We will deliberate tomorrow,” at the Board of Education (BOE) meeting (7 p.m. in the Brookfield High School media center), however the cuts will likely result in cuts to the staff.
“Almost certainly yes,” BOE Chairman Ray DiStephan said of the possibility of layoffs. “Barring some unforeseen or unpredictable circumstance, this is going to be headcount.”
“The board members were absolutely correct,” DiStephan noted, “The two sides are between people who want the budget we proposed and people who want a flat tax rate. But the notion that there’s an extravagant school budget is erroneous,” he said, “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”
The $55.3 million budget proposal will go to referendum Saturday, May 28, in two questions: $19,164,000 for municipal operations and debt service and $36,150,000 for education. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and absentee ballots are available in the Town Clerk’s Office starting Wednesday, May 18 [see attached form].