Approving a slightly larger school spending increase than what the selectmen recommended — though less than the school board has requested — the Board of Finance still worked its way to a zero tax increase for next year.

For the 2020-21 fiscal year that being July 1, the finance board approved a budget that includes a 1.75 percent increase in school spending — seeing that as a compromise between the 1.5 percent increase recommended for schools by the Board of Selectmen and the 3.96% increase the Board of Education had asked for, or the 2.96 percent increase school officials had said would be needed to finance the current year’s program while accommodating contracted increases.

The finance board also approved the 1.2 percent spending increase the selectmen had requested in their own budget for town departments— police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, and town administration.

Overall, with a 4.4 percent drop in debt service figured in — from $11,315,000 to $10,816,000 — the budget increases spending about $1,679,000, or 1.14 percent.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, under Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders, the $149.5 million town and school budget with no tax increase approved by the finance board on a series of votes Thursday night, May 21, becomes law without going to voters at the annual town meeting or budget referendum. The finance board has the final say this year.

To get a zero tax increase while allowing those 1.2 percent town and 1.75 percent school spending increases, the finance board approved the use of $3.5 million from the town’s surplus fund balance, or rainy day fund. The fund balance is expected to end the current fiscal year about at $15.9 million. The finance board’s plan would bring that down to $12.4 million or 8.29 percent of the 2020-21 budget it approved.

The finance board has a policy that the fund balance should be kept at about 8 to 9 percent of the annual budget, and the tax and spending package approved Thursday night will meet that goal.

Pro-school opinion

By increasing school spending a bit more than the selectmen recommended, the finance board appeared to be responding to a surge of public opinion — a petition, speakers at meeting after meeting, and a flood of emails — that was decidedly in support of the school budget. Many speakers at the finance board public hearing Monday night had pointed to 2.76 percent or 2.96 percent as increases that would “carry forward” the current year’s school budget, accommodating salary increases and other contracted agreements without adding any new programs.

A petition urging that the Board of Education be allowed an increase at that level had gotten about 1,000 signatures, finance board Chairman Dave Ulmer said.

“We’ve got a little under 200 people on emails,” urging the school board be allowed at least enough to a spending increase to preserve current programming, he added.

“On other hand, we’ve received 50 or 60 emails in the other direction,” Ulmer said, many of them focused on the goal of a zero tax increase.

“We do read them all,” Ulmer said of the emails.

Unemploymnet

He also said the finance board had huge economic difficulties to factor in, as a result of economic disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 crisis and the state’s economic lockdown.

“Unemployment was at 3 percent — that’s gone up by 1,100 or 1,200 people taking unemployment,” in the last few weeks, he said, raising the number of unemployed Ridgefielders to about 1,500.

“That’s a level of about 13 or 14 percent,” Ulmer said.

The voting by the finance board Thursday night, May 21, appears to allow the combined town and school budget to increase from this year’s $147,828,000 to $149,507,000 for 2020-21 — well, $149,506,569 to be exact — a spending increase of a little over one percent. The finance board’s budget votes break down as: $99,912,000 for school operations, up 1.75 percent; $38,778,000 for town departments and road work, up 1.2 percent.

The budget also incorporates $10,817,000 for debt service, down 4.4 percent.

Revenue decline

On revenues, the financial board accepted the selectmen projection that the 98.7 percent rate of tax collections would likely fall to 98 percent even — with the “uncollectables” rising from 1.3 percent to 2 percent.

And finance board members tweaked the selectmen’s projection that non-tax revenue would decrease by $750,000, instead working a $601,000 decrease in non-tax revenues into their budget. They assumed a bit less of a drop in income from the town’s share of the state’s conveyance tax — which rises and falls with the volume and value of real estate sales — and also a little less of decline in interest income.

Ulmer praised the collaboration seen this year among the finance board, selectmen and the school board.

But he warned colleagues that the fund balance or rainy day fund they were using to bridge the gap between the roughly 1 percent spending increase and no tax increase for 2020-21 may not always be there to solve the town’s fiscal problems.

“Next year we could be sitting here talking about flat budgets,” Ulmer said.

“We can solve problems as a group of boards — as a triboard and not just as one — it’s not up to any of the board to solve the pandemic problem we have,” Ulmer said. “If it goes two years, it can’t be dealt with, with fund balance — you can’t save enough. You have to restructure spending.”