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Finance Board Reduces Tax Increase .5 Points for Second Vote

Proposed mill rate drops from 20.04 to 19.94.

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].

Play Nice in The Sand Box May 19, 2011 at 11:33 PM
"The NO voters supported reducing spending back to 2008 levels." Wow!!! how did you "know" that is what the NO voters said. I voted NO and I don't recall voting for anything that said I supported reducing spending back to 2008 levels.
Steven DeVaux May 20, 2011 at 01:18 AM
You are correct. I misspoke. I and a number of people I spoke with and emailed with supported that. Not all the No voters. Mea culpa. They do have money in the salaries in the budget that they never will spend though, still. That is what they submitted to the voters in both the first and second referendums.
Steven DeVaux May 20, 2011 at 01:21 AM
Aaron, This article's headline is seriously misleading as to our communities process. The mill rate is not set until AFTER the budgets pass by the board of finance. The referendum is on spending only, and not it's sources of funding (local taxes, state grants, federal grants, gifts, etc.)
Play Nice in The Sand Box May 20, 2011 at 04:05 AM
Steven - you do have a point regarding how salaries relate to a budget (other article). I actually have some experience re: budgeting and budget controls -- not in a school environment -- but maybe some of the same principles would apply. Additionally, since I don't have a clue how Brookfield BOE manages the salary line item, they may already have these cost controls in place. The couple of companies that I worked at that handled financial management responsiblities well - budgeted the salary line item during the first iteration of the budget. In those salary budgets, the "slack" (in place of the word "slush fund") would occur when we had family leave situations and when an open position included an estimate for the salary and hire date. Obviously, the accuracy of these estimates determines the amount of "slack". After the initial iteration of the budget, upside (or slack) from salary savings were claculated and factored into the salary forecast by financial management for the remainder of the budget cycle. HOWEVER, that "slack" was never redistributed within that Divisions cost budget . In other words, Division heads were still responsible to deliver cost containment for all non-salary line items and accountable for FTE for their salary costs. If that is what you are talking about, I think the most important thing is to maintain a consistent method for budgeting salary from year to year.
Steven DeVaux May 20, 2011 at 11:25 AM
When actual salaries underrun budgeted salaries every year, it's a telltale sign that the control, if in place is falling dramatically. They should present exactly, by name, lane, step how they developed the salary budget. That's public information. They haven't and won't unlike BoE's from the 1990's and early 2000's who published the salary schedule during the budget process and showed it. If they are, and I can't see how with the size differences between actual salary and budget at the end of each year, then the controls they have in place are failing and can't be relied on to give accurate information on the largest expense line in their budget. The old adage of "trust me, the numbers are right, they're the professionals" doesn't fly when the analysis proves otherwise. And they shouldn't require FOI's to hold off analysis until after the budget passes. People need to be given the right numbers to vote on, and in my opinion, have not been.

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