State budget: Ridgefield spared major cuts as deficit looms

As Ridgefielders began putting on Halloween costumes and setting out candy for trick-or-treaters last Tuesday night, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy quietly signed a bipartisan state budget into law, ending a 123-day fiscal stalemate.

Asked about what that development meant for the town’s bottom line, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the town came out of the stalemate relatively unscathed.

“Overall we’ve been left whole,” Marconi said, noting that Ridgefield will see a total cut of about $102,000 in state aid to the town from 2017 to 2018.

“That’s the good news,” he said.

“The bad news is the state is still anticipating a deficit of over $3 billion.”

That debt will add up over the course of the next two years.

When that happens, Marconi said, he believes lawmakers in Hartford might once again try to shift some of the cost of teachers’ pensions onto the municipalities.

That proposal came up as part of Malloy’s proposed budget back in February. The move would have shifted 30% of the cost of state teachers’ pensions onto municipalities, which boils down to a cost of $4.4 million to the town.

“There are certain people that feel that the municipalities should be responsible for that,” Marconi said.

“In theory I don’t disagree with that, but before that happens, we should be able to sit down as a group and talk about how we can slowly transition that responsibility to the municipality,” he said.

Education

The new budget left much of the town’s cut of the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant in place. That came as something as a surprise, as members of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance last year felt the writing was on the wall for that aid — so much so that they zeroed out the ECS from the school district’s operating budget entirely.

“All of us felt we would be cut, and ECS would be eliminated,” Marconi explained.

All told, Marconi said, the budget cuts about $70,000 from the $571,000 that the town used to receive from the grant — leaving over $500,000 for the town this year.

That money won’t go toward alleviating the hard budget freeze Superintendent Karen Baldwin placed on school accounts this year, a move she said was necessary after the district enrolled a number of special education students who had to be placed out of district, as well as several pending settlements.

Instead, Marconi explained, the money will go into the town’s general fund, as the school budget had already ruled that money out.

“It’s not a payment that goes directly to the Board of Education,” he said. “It’s a way of helping municipalities pay for education.”

“The general taxpayer,” he added.

Special education funding

The budget also includes funding to reimburse districts for the cost of particularly high-needs special education students through Excess Cost Reimbursement (ECR).

“That was the one number we weren’t sure on, but we have been told subsequently that that number will be equal to last year’s — which was around $2 million,” Marconi said.

A report from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities estimated the ECR funding for Ridgefield at $2,023,467 for fiscal year 2018, and $2,017,461 for fiscal year 2019.

Because the ECR goes directly to the school budget, that money could help to offset the roughly $1-million deficit that the superintendent hoped to recover when she issued the district’s school budget freeze earlier this fall.

The district budgeted ECR at $1,455,932.

The new state budget includes $142 million in total funding for ECR across the state, Baldwin told The Press.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, members of the board raised questions about how that money would be doled out to the towns.

“It’s not how much they’re going to fund, but how they’re going to distribute it,” said district business manager Paul Hendrickson.

In previous years, the state paid between 70% and 75% of the excess costs incurred by high-cost special education students — such as those who need to be placed in private schools to meet their needs.

State budget proposals this year have offered only 0% to 55% of the excess cost to be reimbursed to wealthier towns, Baldwin said.

Municipal aid

Outside of education, the new budget restores a number of municipal aid items from the state, including $379,411 in Town Aid Road (TAR), $281,000 in local capital improvement programs, $561,000 in grants for municipal projects, and $132,270 in municipal assistance grants.

For local capital programs, the state will be giving the town $179,000 in fiscal year 2018, and $139,000 the following year.

“I don’t know how you say, ‘OK, we balanced the budget,’ and we still have a $3-billion deficit,” Marconi said.

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