A three percent increase is the likely starting point for the selectmen’s review of the town departments’ budget, expected to begin with a series of nightly meetings in the first week of February.

“I’ve made three passes, and we’re at about three percent, and that’s probably what you’re going to be receiving,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen, who were scheduled to review the budget in consecutive nightly meetings from Feb. 3 through Feb. 6.

The Board of Selectmen’s budget for town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, town hall administration — is about $36 million for the current fiscal year, 2019-20. A three percent increase would add little over $1 million to it.

The town departments’ spending is part of larger overall town-and-school operating budget that is $148 million for the current fiscal year, including: the school operating budget, currently $98 million; a roads and infrastructure line, currently $1,840,000; and debt service, a little over $11 million this year.

The town departments reporting to the selectmen have 206 employees, while the school system counts 728 positions.

The Board of Education oversees the school budget, and is reviewing a proposal from the school administration for a 4 percent increase, which would put the school budget at $102 million for 2020-21, up $4 million from the current $98 million.

Marconi previewed the budget outlook for the selectmen at their meeting on Jan. 22.

The working number of 3 percent for the anticipated increase in town-side spending was down from projections of 4.5 percent discussed at the tri-board meeting of the selectmen, the school board and finance board last fall.

One significant difference is a lowering of projected health insurance costs.

“We got a big change in the health insurance number,” Marconi told the selectmen.

The anticipated health insurance cost increase went from an initial figure of 12 percent to a current projection of 6 percent. This partly due to the reduction of full-time employees through a reorganization with retirement incentives. Seven full-time positions were eliminated, Marconi said.

The health insurance costs for town employees is currently $4.8 million, and it is projected to be $5.1 million next year, according to Marconi.

Capital budget

As department heads come before the selectmen next week to outline their 2020-21 operating budget requests, they will also discuss capital budget requests.

The capital budget is made up of major equipment purchases and construction projects that are expected to last 10 years or more, and are expensive enough that they are usually paid for with borrowing in the bond market, which spreads the cost out over a number of years. Since it’s financed with borrowing, the capital budget doesn’t affect next year’s tax rate the way the operating budget does — although repayment of bonds will show up as part of the debt service in future operating budgets.

The selectmen look at capital spending through a five-year capital plan that lists capital proposals for the coming year in the context of what’s expected to be needed in years farther off.

Their goal in recent years has been to hold the annual list of equipment purchases and construction projects under $3-to-$4 million. They don’t always succeed, as the $5 million 2019-20 capital budget they sent to voters last May testifies.

Marconi told the selectmen that the 2020-21 capital plan they’d see next week was expected to include a $3.2 million in capital requests from the Board of Education, and also a proposal to spend about $2.3 million on architectural plans for a new police station and fire station.

Upgrading police and fire facilities raises a host of questions:

Should existing buildings be upgraded, or replaced?

If new buildings are needed, where?

Would a combined police and fire facility be more practical than two new facilities?

These questions have been under study by Kaestle Boos Architecture, a firm that specializes in the public service buildings, in collaboration with both departments.

Marconi told the selectmen that he and Controller Kevin Redmond had targeted 2022-23 as a good year to start the construction of these projects, since at that time bond repayments from $120 million in borrowing for school construction in the early 2000s — $35 million Scotts Ridge Middle School, and $90 million “the school bundle” — would “start dropping dramatically,” leaving room to add some substantial new projects to the borrowing without a major increase in the town’s annual debt service.

The five-year capital plan shows an estimated $30 million in spending for construction of police and fire station projects, targeted for 2022-23.

To be ready for that construction, there needs to be money in next year’s capital budget for architectural work, Marconi said.

The capital spending picture is expected to gain clarity after the report comes in from Kaestle Boos and the committee currently studying the needs and potential solutions for both the police and fire departments. It’s expected in the next few weeks.

Remember ’08

The selectmen had a mixed reaction to the capital spending outlook.

After the crash of 2008, a proposal to renovate the existing police station was rejected by voters, Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark recalled.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on architectural plans that don’t get approved,” she said.

“We should clearly communicate to the public why we need this,” Selectman Sean Connelly said, “[B]efore we put things up for a vote.”

Selectman Bob Hebert was struck by the $30 million estimate for the police and fire facilities.

“That’s a big number,” he said.

“Whether it’s $25 or $32 (million), it’s a big number,” Marconi agreed.

“It’s two buildings,” Hebert conceded.

But the need for projects to improve police and fire facilities shouldn’t come as a surprise, Marconi said.

“Those two buildings,” he said, “have been on the books for many years.”