Has Newtown’s Budget Hard Line Shifted?

If the Town of Newtown were to run on the currency of goodwill and compassion, the 2013-2014 budget would be easy to construct and even easier to pass. The town seems to be amassing substantial reserves in both accounts in the wake of 12/14. But when it comes to cash on the barrelhead for public services rendered, the munificence of local taxpayers has traditionally been a little more measured. As the Board of Finance prepares to review budget proposals from both town departments and the school district, we wait to see whether recent events have recalibrated the town’s ideas on necessity and excess.

The proposals for a $72.8 million school budget and a $38.5 million town budget reflect spending increases of 6.26 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively. In a community where taxpayer restiveness usually starts to percolate with budget increases of two or three percent, this year will be a test of whether there has been a shift in the town’s economic hard line. Certainly, there will be new and justifiable costs for added security in the schools. The school board is requesting an additional $248,000 for 12 additional security guards in the schools, which we expect will be just the game-opening ante as the town awaits the recommendations of a Security Committee established by the school district and the Newtown Police Department last week. How many of these new safety measures will be covered by state and federal grants remains to be seen.

The Board of Education’s budget proposal also includes some other new objectives that add to the projected increase, including instituting full-day kindergarten, and meeting state-imposed “common core” standards and expanded teacher evaluation protocols. Beyond possible assistance with security measures, not much additional help should be expected from Hartford. The state is facing its own fiscal challenge — a projected $1.2 billion deficit for the next fiscal year. Newtown learned this week that its Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant from the state will rise just $31,750 for 2013-2014.

Any other year, we would say a budget with this level of increased spending would be in for a rough landing at the polls this spring. But who is to say that Newtown’s attitude toward its public investments has not been changed by 12/14, along with so many other aspects of our community life? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it begs an answer. A good time for taxpayers to deliver that answer will be at the public hearings of the Board of Finance and Legislative Council, which will be scheduled next month.

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