Both residents and officials on hand to listen during a sparsely attended public budget hearing February 21 expressed significant concerns about future school security needs.
While every member of the public who spoke requested the board find a way to add armed and trained personnel for all the town’s schools, some officials expressed a degree of frustration that a special security committee, headed by Superintendent Janet Robinson, has not yet provided a comprehensive recommendation as time runs out to factor any additional costs into next year’s budget proposal.
Nine individuals including two representatives of town PTA organizations all called for or suggested ways the town could put armed and trained security personnel into all local and private school — if those private institutions are interested.
But most of the speakers focused on the value and benefits of school resource officers (SROs), many mentioning the recent Police Commission recommendation that the town hire and train as many as 11 new SROs, a civilian support person, and acquire several additional vehicles specifically for those new hires.
Several also went as far as telling the finance board and First Selectman Pat Llodra that they would gladly pay higher taxes to see that Police Commission proposal come to fruition.
Only James Dolan spoke referencing the already-high cost of property taxes in town, stating that people he knows who are considering relocating “look in Newtown and then buy in Brookfield.” He also specifically promoted hiring retired law enforcement officers instead of SROs, suggesting it could be the most effective and economical option for the town.
“A retired police officer would jump at the chance to sit in a school for seven hours,” he said. “They have their own benefits and it would cost half of what is being proposed.”
According to officials and members of the public referencing the Police Commission’s proposal, the approximate cost for each new SRO including specialized training and benefits could be as high as $90,000. Mrs Llodra also referenced the extra allocation of specially outfitted vehicles being proposed for the officers.
Cost Of Cars
Focusing on the need for replacement squad cars already included in the municipal side budget request, the first selectman noted that since Ford Crown Victorias are no longer manufactured, Chevrolets selected to replace them cost the town will cost $26,000 more each, adding substantially more to the taxpayer expense of hiring new SROs.
The hearing began with Chairman John Kortze explaining that the town was already facing a challenging budget cycle, telling the roughly two dozen residents attending the hearing that all public safety expense would fall on the town side of the spending plan.
He reminded townspeople that the finance board, by charter, is the final step in the process where expenses could be added to the request. Once the budget proposal is passed to the Legislative Council, that body could not consider adding any requests for funding.
Mr Kortze also pointed out that the April 2013 budget referendum would be the first under a recently requirement for a split or bifurcated ballot, in which taxpayers could make separate endorsements of the town and school requests.
He said once his board had the Police Commission’s package of proposals for added school security, they would be posted online for public review, and his board would ask commissioners and police officials to appear to explain their requests. He also said the finance board will need to hear from Dr Robinson and her security committee sooner than later.
Laura Terry, the Head O’ Meadow School PTA president, spoke on behalf of her group and as a parent herself, stating that while her older children already have existing SROs in the intermediate and middle schools, her elementary level child is not currently afforded the same protection.
“That doesn’t make me feel secure,” she said.
Elda Smith spoke for several minutes, referring to a manual on SROs she brought to the hearing, and telling the board she is making it her “personal mission” to inform residents about the specially trained school officers.
Volunteering To Help
Both Carla Barzetti and Bill Stevens offered to help take the financial pressure off the town by volunteering in some capacity to help secure district facilities. Mr Stevens said he was against raising taxes unless it is for appropriate purposes, and suggested having police officials train parents in the use of firearms and school security measures so they could volunteer in local schools.
“The town needs to be more self reliant,” he said.
Christine Wilford said she has four children in the school system, and that her son who currently attends at the Chalk Hill facility in Monroe has formed a bond with an SRO stationed there. She also said having SROs at all levels of the district would help in identifying children with specific “difficulties” at an earlier age, and providing continuity for those officers who could continue to monitor those students as they progress out of the elementary level.
Following the hearing, the first selectman provided her proposal overview, detailing, along with Finance Director Robert Tait, each area of her budget requesting increases. She said there are a couple of unknowns facing taxpayers in the next fiscal cycle, because the town has yet to begin negotiating with three of its union bargaining units, and because of the unknown costs tied to the security committee’s final recommendations.
“We need to understand what is being asked for,” Mrs Llodra said, adding there is a sense of urgency to get information from the committee in a comprehensive way officials and the community can understand. Pointing out that a number of security-related costs are already sprinkled throughout the school budget, Mrs Llodra said, “Piecemeal does a disservice to our community, what is the long-term plan?”
The first selectman said she is also concerned about how to utilize the added SROs suggested by the Police Commission when schools are not in session.
And she noted that adding the recommendations proposed by the commission would increase the municipal side of the budget request by 25 percent. She also referred to new officers already hired by the department saying, “I see no evidence that we are not sufficiently staffed.”
Mrs Llodra said if the security committee and Police Commission requests are not hashed out by the time the budget goes to the council, the town could estimate an allocation and put it into a contingency fund while building the estimated expense into next year’s taxation.
Or the town could come forward requesting a special appropriation, applying the full cost into the tax base in the 2014-15 fiscal cycle. She added that the second option should go before voters in the form of a special referendum, “no matter what.”
Closing the meeting, Mr Kortze told officials and the remaining audience members that “somehow, some way, we’re going to have to chip away at this.”
He also said he wished several residents stayed until the end of the meeting, so he could implore everyone to engage in budget discussions among themselves and their fellow residents utilizing complete and factual information.
Mr Kortze said he has already seen e-mails circulating with “information that isn’t always factual,” and “many times incomplete.”
“That often leads to confusion despite the need and intent for clarity,” Mr Kortze said, “especially this year.”