Budget hearing tonight: Selectmen suggest 1.5% more for schools
Hoping the tax rate can still be held to a zero increase, the Board of Selectmen has recommend that the finance board — which is holding a virtual public hearing tonight — allow school spending to increase by 1.5 percent next year, and town departments to spend 1.2 percent more. The finance board and has final budget and tax authority this year, with the corona virus limiting the ability to hold public meetings.
The finance board’s public hearing — conducted virtually, on Zoom — is tonight Monday, May 18, starting at 7 p.m. Information on how to register to participate in the Zoom hearing is on the town’s website: www.ridgefieldct.org.
The finance board has then scheduled virtual meetings Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, with the selectmen joining them in Tuesday, the school board expected to join Wednesday night, and the final votes expected Thursday night. After the hearing Monday, the finance board does not plan to take public comment at its work meeting the rest of the week.
The finance board had final budget authority this year amid the COVID-19 crisis, under executive orders from Gov. Ned Lamont that govern budget procedures in towns across the state — there will be no voting by the general public at the Annual Town Meeting and budget referendum, as there is most years.
If the finance board agrees to the selectmen’s proposals, the combined town and school budget would increase from this year’s $147,828,000 to $149,261,000 for 2020-21 — a spending increase of just under one percent, with savings in areas like the town’s declining debt service worked in.
The selectmen’s May 12 budget votes call for: $99,666,666 for school operations, up 1.5 percent; $38,777,553 for town departments and road work, up 1.2 percent; and $10,816,865 for debt service, down 4.4 percent.
To get from the roughly one percent spending increase to a zero tax increase, the selectmen envision the finance board using a portion of the town’s roughly $15 million surplus fund balance to cover the difference.
A petition by school supporters and the overwhelming number of “public comment” offerings at selectmen’s Zoom budget meetings have called for as little reduction as possible to the Board of Education’s budget.
The school board originally requested a 3.96 percent spending increase — which would be a school budget of $102,082,000. That budget envisioned adding a director of security position, a new social worker at the high school, and some “math coach” positions.
Numerous comments suggested perhaps eliminating those new program additions, and seeking a “carry forward” budget that would continue this year’s operations with contractual increases, amounting to a 2.96 percent spending increase.
With the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, the selectmen’s consensus was committed to avoiding any tax increase — but that’s a job that will now go to the Board of Finance.
“I just feel the optics of any kind of an increase in the mill rate is significant today,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
“The 800-plus signatures came in, that the PTA worked very, very hard on,” he said, acknowledging the school supporters’ petition.
“There are a lot of other people who never comment,” Marconi added. “...There are a lot of other people in this community — and this has a big impact — there are people out of work that have never lost their jobs before.”