‘No fireworks’ at Ridgefield tri-board meeting
“No fireworks, no tears,” finance board member Amy Freidenreich said after the annual tri-board meeting.
“And no field trips planned,” she added.
The tri-board meeting of the finance board, the school board and the selectmen Tuesday night did not, as the gathering has in recent years, result in town and school officials agreeing to informal targets for next year’s spending and tax increases.
Finance board chairman Dave Ulmer did at one point recall that past practice.
“We have been able to keep taxes around the inflation rate,” Ulmer said. “The inflation rate averages 2%.”
The town’s current 2019-20 fiscal year is about $148 million in spending — $98 million for the school system, $38 million for town departments, $11 million in debt service, and close to $2 million for road repairs and repaving.
“This year’s budget we’re trending well,” Ulmer said.
And the recently completed $144 million 2018-19 fiscal year that ended in June is expected to have about a $2.7 million surplus.
“We have a very nice surplus in fiscal ’19,” Ulmer told the meeting.
According to Controller Kevin Redmond, the 2018-19 fiscal year;s surplus is derived from revenues coming in $1.9 million above what was projected — with about $1.4 million of that from a tax sale, while expenses — spending — ran about $800,000 below what had been budgeted.
As for the 2020-21 fiscal year that town officials will be working to put together in the coming months — and presenting to voters in May — Ulmer was cautiously optimistic.
“In terms of next year’s revenue, it looks like we’ll be up something in the area of $1 million,” Ulmer said.
“That covers the first $1 million in added spending.”
“Organic growth” in the town’s grand list of taxable properties is expected to be between half of one percent and one percent, Ulmer told the meeting — and that translates into about $500,000 to $1 million that’s available to cover increased spending.
“Half a percent generates about $500,000. One percent generates about $1 million,” Ulmer said.
“There is stuff going on around town,” Ulmer said. “The good news is there is building and growth going on.”
“Point seven-five,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi, picking 0.75 percent as the midpoint of Ulmer’s predicted range half-a-percent to one-percent revenue increase..
“Last year, it was 0.6 percent,” Ulmer noted.
The town is also expecting about a $250,000 decrease in the $11.3 million it has to spend on debt service, which has been falling as bonds from the 2001 school bundle borrowing are paid off.
So, some increase in spending can be covered.
“We can cover the first 1% by revenue,” Ulmer told the selectmen and school board members — whose budgets are the source of the town’s spending. “After that it gets covered by taxes.”
Ulmer explained his back-of-the envelope calculations after the meeting.
“We can cover the first 1%. After that every 1% on the Board of Education is $1 million. Every 1% on the Board of Selectmen is $300,000, $350,000. That all falls to taxes,” he said.
“If they both come in with a two percent, the tax increase needs to be one percent. If they both came in at three percent, we could come in very close to a two percent tax increase.”
Ulmer noted that in her address to the three boards interim schools superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote had said the school administration’s work on next year’s budget currently projects to 5.75 percent increase.
“That’s where it was last year” at this point in the process, he said. “By the time it got to us it was 3.3 percent.”
There are some potential curveballs. The ash tree problem is one that officials spoke of. And a move by the state to lay off more costs on towns and cities is another — a few years back then Governor Malloy introduced the idea of sharing with towns and cities the state’s considerable teacher pension costs.
The way things go in Hartford, that idea could always be brought back, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said, and he and other municipal leaders from the Council of Small Towns (COST) are working on strategies to fight it.
The finance board expects to be able to continue its practice of taking some money from the $15 million fund balance and using it as non-tax revenue, to hold down the increase taxpayers are hit with.
It’s always been our philosophy to give it back,” Ulmer said of annual surpluses that accumulate in the town’s fund balance.
“The problem is, you can’t do that forever,” Ulmer said.
However, with 2018-19 surplus and current 2019-20 fiscal year going reasonably well, the potential is there for next year.
“We put $1.675 million into revenues for fiscal ’20,” Ulmer said. “...Looking at fiscal ’21, it looks very much like we’ll be able to carry over that $1.675 million into the ’21 budget.”
Ulmer said he’d been surprised there wasn’t more local blow-back from changes to federal income tax code, specifically homeowners having a new limit on the amount of the “SALT” deductions they can take, write-offing on federal taxes what they’d paid in state and local taxes.
Ulmer had thought this change — which hit hard on owners of expensive homes who pay hefty taxes in towns like Ridgefield — to have at least an emotion impact that would be expressed toward the town as the closest taxing entity.
“I expected more push back because of SALT, in terms of people not liking taxes,” he told the tri-board meeting.
Marconi said assessor Al Garzi may be seeing some reaction to that federal tax change, with people from nearby New York — where there are county as well as town taxes — looking at potential moves to Connecticut.
“Al Garzi stated he averaged three to five calls a week from people in Westchester: If they were to move to Ridgefield, with around X square feet, what would their taxes be?”
Finance board member Freidenreich’s comment about “no field trips planned” was an apparent reference to last year’s tri-board meeting, when school board members painted a picture of school buildings in dire need of more maintenance. Their pleading for money to fix up the schools led to tours of the buildings by at least some members of all three boards — and, eventually, allocations to make repairs.
School board chairwoman Margaret Stamatis mentioned the multi-board committee which toured the schools and made building maintenance a budget priority.
“I want to thank you,” she said, not only for touring the buildings but “going back to your boards and advocating, and allowing us to move ahead with needed repair projects.”