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First Selectman Dan Rosenthal’s first pass at producing an annual municipal spending plan just weeks after taking office was driven by contractual payroll increases, planned investments in road improvements, important technology upgrades, and adding a long-sought purchasing professional to the town’s payroll.
Dropping a proposed 2018-19 budget proposal two weeks ahead of a charter stipulated deadline, Mr Rosenthal and Town Finance Director Robert Tait told the Board of Selectmen January 16 that a requested 2.5 percent increase would provide taxpayers with the “same services” as the current year. The net proposed increase over the current year stands at $1,007,000.
If moved to voters as proposed and approved at referendum, the spending plan would boost road repairs and maintenance by a quarter-million dollars, fund required upgrades to vital municipal computer systems, and furthers a pledge to increasing “shared services” with the Board of Education.
Another fractional line in the approximately $41 million request proposes spending $3,000 to lease a new vehicle for the town’s top elected official, replacing an aging and mechanically compromised Jeep that was originally acquired when the first selectman’s father, Herb Rosenthal, was in office a decade and a half ago.
A decision made by the previous administration, but delayed to this year, involves adjusting the pension actuarial calculation method in line with industry best practices that reduces the pension discount rate from 7.5 to seven percent. This recommendation by both the Town Pension Committee and a new pension advisor requires a $290,000 overall bump when combining the town and police pension plans.
Another deferred expense from last year, Mr Tait explained, involves top priority capital equipment purchases, including technology that plays a key role in keeping town government offices and vital public safety technology operational. Without getting into details, Mr Rosenthal told the board that in recent weeks, the system required replacement of two components that evidence an imminent need to upgrade hardware.
Mr Tait said he would work to reduce taxpayer-funded expenses next year by combining and applying any small pockets of savings in the current operations budget as those anticipated surpluses became more evident in the final few months of this fiscal cycle.
Deferments Come Due
With all but $59,000 in next year’s proposed capital investment increases planned for road repairs, the finance director noted that if that expenditure was deferred, or the increase in road-related spending was bonded, it would immediately reduce the requested budget increase from 2.5 to 1.9 percent.
Evidencing the intense amount of work already spent on the budget proposal, Mr Tait said that the first selectman had already reviewed and chopped almost $2 million, or 4.6 percent from original departmental requests that amounted to a 7.5 percent increase in the earliest stages of vetting.
Projecting rounded amounts, the finance director told selectmen that nearly half the total proposed budget increase is non-discretionary because it involves $438,000 in negotiated wage, pension, and benefit increases for various town union bargaining units.
In 2018, the Highway Department, town hall workers, and emergency communications contracts will be up for renewal, Mr Tait added.
Total capital investments including the big chunk for roads is proposed at $309,000; increased operating expenses for the entire municipal government would be $263,000; and debt service on all current borrowing including all school district capital projects is projected to cost $53,000.
Mr Tait told The Newtown Bee that a $79,000 reduction in the municipal contingency budget line represented shifting funds for anticipated 2018 state political primaries to the Registrar of Voters budget line, and the balance, if needed, to pay for additional sand and salt for winter storm response.
By reducing the contingency line by more than 44 percent over the current year, Mr Tait said responsibilities of department heads to control spending would increase measurably.
Wages And Salaries
The long awaited and debated addition of a shared purchasing professional with the school district would cost each department $50,000 — $44,000 each for salary, and the balance for benefits. Overtime in the new budget plan is a modest $8,000.
In previous discussions about the addition, Mr Rosenthal said when hiring a purchasing professional, it would be his expectation that the position would essentially pay for itself by the second year by producing equivalent or greater savings for the town and school district.
Anticipated union wage increases estimated at 2.25 percent amount to a $235,000 increase; police salary step increases are budgeted at $16,000; and other municipal salary enhancements are pegged at $21,000.
Those include a part-time senior position that would come on line upon the opening of the new town Senior Center in April of 2019 at a 2018 budget cost of $5,000. The elimination of a part-time zoning liaison officer in the planning department generates savings in that budget line of $10,000.
The second of two committed salary increases for the first selectman’s executive assistant is budgeted at $6,000, along with a $10,000 bump for the technology director — bringing that compensation more in line with similar positions in similarly-sized towns.
Increasing responsibilities and duties justify increases of $2,000 each for the deputy fire marshal and parks operations supervisor, and the senior services director, which shows a requested increase of $1,000.
Selectmen have planned special budget meetings for Tuesday, January 23, and Thursday, January 25. By Charter, the budget proposal must be moved to the Board of Finance for review by February 14.
In other action January 16, Mr Rosenthal sought to clarify his commitment to doing whatever was possible to assist the Newtown Forest Association in its work to acquire the Cherry Grove Farm as open space, but took issue with the association’s latest fundraising update that incorrectly stated the town had already committed funding to the project.
“The town made no commitment,” Mr Rosenthal said. “It looks like NFA put the cart before the horse, saying town had committed to the purchase.”
While indicating the town has some possible funding available in its open space account, the first selectman said he would only invest in the acquisition if the town could secure development rights to prevent any future building or alteration of the entire parcel.
The selectmen also unanimously voted to accept the conveyance of about an acre of property at 71 Lakeview Terrace by its owner Ryan Botti. Public Works Director Fred Hurley, who was present, said if the property was accepted, it would provide an opportunity to correct one of several problem-plagued drainage areas in the waterfront neighborhood.