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During the final regular meeting with its present membership November 15, the Legislative Council made good on its commitment to make the school budget whole, after an 11th hour maneuver last April to temporarily reduce the school district’s bottom line, during the council’s final budget session.
After learning that a final state budget that was signed into law just weeks ago would deliver additional unbudgeted funds to the town, the council also decided not to act to spend the approximately half-million dollars after members were told it might need to be appropriated in the spring to bridge a possible shortfall in special education expenses.
The council also briefly deliberated the relatively minor issue of authorizing the use of a quad ATV by the local little league to be operated on town-owned property, and ended the meeting celebrating the service of a number of departing colleagues, including First Selectman Pat Llodra, who either decided to not run for another term of service or who were unsuccessful in their efforts to be re-elected on November 7.
Town Finance Director Robert Tait briefly reviewed a document that illustrated the difference between what the town adopted in its budget for various revenue points versus what was finally approved in the state budget, combining to total a surplus of $2,052,293.
According to the worksheet, a positive variance of $2,052,293 was available to cover proposed local expenditures that were unfunded in the current spending plan because it was unsure whether any state funding would be returned as Connecticut’s state budget approval dragged on past its normal June 30 deadline into the final days of October.
After deducting $447,572 the town is losing in motor vehicle taxes because of an imposed state cap that was passed on as an unfunded mandate to communities that previously taxed vehicle owners beyond what the cap permitted, the balance available for special appropriations was approximately $1,605,000.
But during the council’s final budget session in early April, the panel committed to providing $1,032,000 to the Board of Education budget to make its special education budget whole if those funds were freed up to pass through from the state.
“If you remember during the budget process, the council reduced the Board of Ed [special education] line item for an expected increase in special education funding, so the council reduced the Board of Ed budget by $1,032,000,” Mr Tait previously told The Newtown Bee. “But the council said that if those grants did not come in they would make them whole. So Pat [Llodra] suggested the council initiate a special appropriation to restore the Board of Ed budget for the special ed grant they did not get.”
Reserving Unspent Funds
At the same time, the council opted to not act to transfer the balance of those state monies to cover a number of other line items its members reduced, but had suggested refunding if state revenues exceeded the amount projected when the local 2017-18 budget request was moved to referendum last April.
Those items included a $55,000 contribution to the Board of Education pension line; $133,000 to the municipal pension line; $250,000 in appropriations for road repairs; and $135,000 for school district noncritical maintenance.
The decision to hold those funds came after a report from school district Business Manager Ron Bienkowski, who said since September the rolls of special education students grew by 27 along with corresponding costs for in and out of district services.
After the number of special ed students increased by four between September and October, Mr Bienkowski expressed to the council that Newtown could be “a victim of its own success” regarding its highly valued special education programming, and suggested that “people seem to be moving in because of the level of support.”
The district business manager also said he was anticipating some higher than expected energy costs. Mrs Llodra also suggested the council consider not allocating the remaining state funds until the spring.
“I’m concerned that the Board of Education is challenged with these current year special ed costs,” she said. “So if in fact the entire fund is allocated, the council may find the school board coming back for help. The need is real, and the district is putting strategies in place to deal with it. But if needed, money has to come from somewhere — so consider delaying this until you have a better idea of the future needs.”
An initial motion to spend the remaining money as planned was quickly withdrawn so council members would not have to vote against funding those earmarks, and the decision was made to take no action.
ATV For Babe Ruth
Following a Board of Selectmen endorsement earlier this month, the council was called upon to authorize the Newtown Babe Ruth baseball league to operate a quad ATV the league was planning to acquire for use on town-owned fields. Mrs Llodra explained that such an authorization had to be endorsed by both selectmen and the council.
During brief discussion, Councilman Neil Chaudhary, who is a transportation safety expert and scientist, expressed caution regarding liability to anyone operating the vehicle because of the poor safety record of ATVs.
After noting that ATVs are responsible for more than 400 deaths a year on roadways and likely twice as many off road, he concurred that the town needed to be sure it was separating itself from any liability exposure if someone from the league is injured operating the quad.
Mrs Llodra explained that the league’s leadership indicated it needed such a vehicle to help transport heavy equipment between playing fields, and that such services were beyond what the Parks & Recreation Department could offer. She added that the vehicle would not be registered, so it would not be operated on or across town roads.
Councilman Chris Eide, citing language in the league’s request letter, said he would like any such agreement to stipulate that the ATV would be used solely for that purpose, and Mrs Llodra said the agreement could be spelled out with that specificity.
The council then authorized the vehicle to operate on town fields for the proposed limited use outlined by the league.
Recognition Of Service
In the final moments of the meeting, it was time to say farewell to a number of officials as it was the council’s last meeting before a newly elected slate of officials takes office on December 1.
Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob, who is departing after an unsuccessful primary bid for the first selectman’s seat, started by recognizing the service of other departing members Dan Amaral, George Ferguson, Anthony Filiato, and Councilman Chaudhary. She then thanked all the returning incumbent members for their good work and support during their terms of service before expressing how proud she was to have the privilege to serve.
Then Mr Chaudhary read a council proclamation in celebration of Mrs Llodra, who chose to not seek another term and who will leave office on November 30. That conveyance of sentiment was expanded upon as Newtown Poet Laureate Lisa Schwartz read a piece she created in honor of Mrs Llodra.
Then Councilman Dan Honan on behalf of the group thanked Ms Jacob for her service, delivering a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, while colleague Judit DeStefano presented her with a commemorative ornament.
Settling back into her chair at the center of the panel, Ms Jacob for the final time called for a motion to adjourn.
The first meeting of the newly elected council is scheduled for Wednesday, December 6.