“One and done!”
That was the final comment of longtime budget critic and Legislative Council member Dan Amaral as he stood with fellow council members, and the Boards of Selectmen, Finance, and Education before him, in unanimously passing next year’s zero-increase budget request to voters.
Calling for taxpayers to get behind a rare spending plan that actually cuts taxation incrementally, Mr Amaral uttered the phrase that could serve as a rallying cry for budget proponents hoping to pass the proposal during a single referendum. In past years, budgets have generally required multiple votes to pass.
Voters will make up their minds on the bifurcated, or split, town and school budgets April 22 when they are called to the Newtown Middle School to cast their votes between 6 am and 8 pm. Town Clerk Debbie Halstead told The Bee that absentee ballots would be available for voters beginning Friday, April 4.
On April 2, the council unanimously endorsed sending a request for $111,066,204 to voters to cover town and school services, along with annual debt service for capital projects, which is carried in the Board of Selectmen budget.
While the approved budget request represents a 0.91 percent increase above the current year, because of updated revenue projections, the spending plan requires 0.02 percent less in taxation than the current operating budget — and will require a 2014-15 tax rate of 33.31 mills, representing no change, or what is commonly termed “zero increase.”
Those added revenues included $562,000 in grand list growth, $275,000 in additional supplemental motor vehicle taxes, and $152,000 in unanticipated or previously unbudgeted state grants and payments.
Voters will decide on separate requests by the Board of Education for $71,345,304 (0.42 percent increase), and the Board of Selectmen for $39,720,900 (1.78 percent increase), which includes debt service of $10,342,994 (2.8 percent increase).
Leading up to the Wednesday council vote, subcommittees that reviewed requested expenditures of the school district, municipal administration, and operations all met, each endorsing their part of the spending plan. In addition, Interim School Superintendent John Reed, the school board, and all the town’s PTAs lined up behind the budget proposal, calling for taxpayers to turn out in force April 22 to show support.
Even First Selectman Pat Llodra made a point to compliment school officials while backing the overall budget request.
“If Dr. Reed didn’t think [the budget request] met the needs of students, he would not back down,” Mrs Llodra said, referring to his reputation for fighting for district funding to best serve students. “I believe and respect him, and understand the value of his [support].”
During the first of two public participation opportunities, school board Chair Debbie Leidlein reminded council members that her board and district officials worked hard and collaboratively to craft a budget plan that took significantly declining enrollment into consideration.
“We worked hard to be sure we addressed educational needs,” Ms Leidlein said. She also expressed appreciation to the finance board for identifying a potential shortfall in next year’s self-insured health care fund balance, and finding revenue to cover the district’s proportion without increasing overall taxation.
During budget committee reports, Mr Ferguson said numerous questions were asked regarding finance and administration matters, and he said those queries were answered fully and are represented in the minutes of the March 27 meeting. Council member Robert Merola said his committee, with one member absent, met April 1 to deliberate and approved the municipal operations line items.
The education committee met twice, finalizing its unanimous support for the district request in less than ten minutes just before the main council meeting April 2.
After each full council motion to endorse the town and school proposals, Chair Mary Ann Jacob polled each member on their thoughts.
Speaking on the municipal request, Mr Amaral said this year’s budget proposal was “done well,” but he cautioned that it contained many new programs and spending for school security personnel that would require continued funding in future budgets.
He suggested the town could greatly increase its economic efficiencies by considering the hiring of a purchasing agent who would handle duties for the town and schools that are now falling on managers and administrators who may lack advanced purchasing and grant writing skills.
Mrs Llodra said she and Finance Director Robert Tait identified a purchasing director as a critical need for the community several years ago, and that the town and district need to work collaboratively to create that position. She added that a purchasing position would “pay for itself in short order,” because of savings and revenues the individual could develop through dedicated focus.
Councilman Phil Carroll complimented town officials for their continued dedication in keeping the townside request relatively flat during the past few years, while expressing concern that the town has reduced its request to the point where “there is no wiggle room.”
Councilman Joe Girgasky said he would support the proposals, saying both town and school officials “did a great job” crafting budget plans that were “transparent and responsible.”
Ms Jacob thanked the finance board members for inviting the council to their budget deliberations and presenting their findings so thoroughly. She also pointed out that had the finance officials not recognized the need to add funds to the budget request to cover school security officers and self-insurance shortfalls, the council by charter would not have possessed the power to add those funds into the plan.
Council Vice Chairman Neil Chaudhary, also the education committee chair, said his colleagues asked and received answers to questions they tendered to school officials, and they fully supported the district’s request.
Instead of taking the opportunity to discuss the district request, council member Lisa Romano, who was 20 minutes late to the meeting and skipped the previous night’s municipal operations vote, took aim at the finance board and a “budget that does not invest in the future of [Newtown’s] schools.”
But she was interrupted by Ms Jacob who asked that Ms Romano confine remarks to the motion to approve the request before them. Ms Romano, citing her own educational credentials, suggested the school board look for funds to add more teaching positions, saying large class sizes were an issue that are negatively affecting her own child’s classroom experience.
“I hope next year we do our research to determine what we really need,” she said.
Mr Chaudhary seemed to bristle at the suggestion, responding that the budget before the council represented the request put forth by the interim superintendent.
“This budget moves us forward and I’m proud of our officials and the work they did,” Mr Chaudhary said.
Councilman Paul Lundquist said the end result of the district’s request — approval of Dr Reed’s proposal — “should create positive momentum going into the vote.”
“The Board of Finance understood what the Board of Education’s needs were,” he said. “As a town [traditionally] seeking a zero increase, it should be celebrated. This is a good, solid, responsible budget, and deserves a quick pass from the public as well.”
Ms Jacob said this year represented “one of the most cooperative budget processes she has ever seen,” with an unprecedented number of meetings, which included opportunities for taxpayers to access details and even individual audience with both the first selectman and school officials, including Dr. Reed.
She also defended the school board, which she said was facing “undue criticism” for its decisions regarding their final budget proposal. As an employee of the school district herself, Ms Jacob said she believed that reductions to district staffing represented a “fair and balanced” action corresponding to enrollment declines.
She then reminded attendees and taxpayers that by charter, the council could not add money back even if one or both budgets failed at referendum.
“This [represents] the most money the Board of Education will get next year,” she said of the plan on the table before calling the vote for the school proposal, which passed unanimously.
(This story was corrected on 4/5/14 to indicate that Lisa Romano was 20 minutes late to the meeting and not 45 minutes late, as originally reported.)