Voicing an ardent consensus that the tax rate should be held to a zero increase, the selectmen voted to recommend that the finance board allow school spending to increase by 1.5 percent next year, while asking for a 1.2 percent increase in spending by town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation and town hall administration.

If the finance board agrees, the combined town and school budget would increase from this year’s $147,828,000 to $149,261,000 for 2020-21, rounding to the nearest $1,000 — a spending increase of just under one percent. The selectmen’s budget votes Tuesday night, May 12, break down as: $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.

As envisioned by the selectmen, a portion of the town’s roughly $15 million surplus fund balance could be used to bridge the gap between the zero increase in taxes and the roughly $1.4 million in proposed spending increases.

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 request for a 3.96 percent spending increase, with many comments highlighting one percent less than than — a 2.96 percent increase — as the level at which this year’s budget could be carried forward without any staff or program additions.

With the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, the selectmen had a firm majority 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, they’re afraid people would look down on them,” Marconi said. “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.

“You’re not going to come out and say I’ve lost my job and I’m broke and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Finance hearing

To avoid public gatherings during the coronavirus and COVID-19 crisis, under executive orders from Gov. Ned Lamont, there will be no Annual Town Meeting and no budget referendum this year.

Final decisions on Ridgefield’s budgets and the tax rate will be made by the Board of Finance.

The finance board plans a public hearing — conducted virtually, on Zoom — next Monday night, May 18, starting at 7. Information on how to register to participate in the Zoom hearing will be on the town’s website: www.ridgefieldct.org.

The finance board has then scheduled meetings Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, with the selectmen expected to participate in discussions Tuesday, the school board expected to join Wednesday, and the final votes scheduled for 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.

In addition to a 1.5 percent increase for the schools and a 1.2 percent increase for town departments, the budget scenario the selectmen agreed upon projected a $750,000 decline in non-tax revenues — fees, charges for programs, state and federal grants — and also a slight drop in the rate of tax collections.

Generally, town officials assume tax collections will come in at 98.7 percent — with just 1.3 percent “uncollectible.” In view of the economy, the selectmen thought that should be lowered. They built their budget math around an assumption of a 98 percent tax collection rate, with 2 percent “uncollectible” — although the final revenue projections are the purview of finance board, not the selectmen.

The selectmen’s budget would also allocate $10.8 million — down from $11.3 million this year — for town and school debt service payments.

Dissenting views

Tuesday night’s votes on the two main motions — one recommending a 1.5 percent school increase and another asking for a 1.2 percent town budget increase — were both 4 to 1, but with different selectmen dissenting.

Selectmen Sean Connelly was the dissenter on the school budget vote, feeling that too much cutting would be required to keep the schools to a 1.5 percent increase.

“You’re letting go administrators, teachers, making class sizes bigger — that’s a real impact for kids,” Connelly said.

This was in marked contrast to Selectman Bob Hebert.

“We’re not supposed to look at the individual line items in these budgets,” Hebert said. “We have to look at what the town can afford, to sustain the viability of this town. It’s up to the Board of Education and superintendent to come up with an honest, transparent budget they can understand so they don’t have to make their cuts to the classrooms.”

Hebert thought school officials could do more to reduce spending, including trying to renegotiate raises in the teachers’ contract — an effort which new School Superintendent Susie Da Silva told the Board of Education had been tried, but without success.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Hebert said.”...They go to the union, they said ‘Oh, the union said no, they’re not going to talk to us.’ To me, that’s unacceptable. It’s time for us to be the responsible adults in the room.”

Hebert also felt the schools shouldn’t get an increase larger than the 1.2 percent hike the selectmen had agreed to for town departments — a trend in recent years of the school budget growing faster than the town budget, despite declining student enrollment.

“We approved a 1.2 percent increase. I cannot go any more than the 1.2 percent for the schools. We’ve got to stop that trend,” Hebert said. “We just can’t afford it right now, when you see what’s happening with these businesses.

“If 38 businesses close up on Main Street, what’s that going to do for our town?”

Hebert mentioned neighboring school districts with little or no spending increases this year, and Connelly pointed to cost-per-student comparisons, which put Ridgefield below other affluent Fairfield County school districts in the state’s District Reference Group A or DRG-A.

“Even at a potential 2.5 (percent increase) we’re still less per student than those other towns,” Connelly said. “People have this impression our schools are spending willy-nilly — we’re the lowest (per student) by almost $2,000 compared to the other towns.”

Spend the give-back

Marconi weighed in, noting that the schools were projected to return about $800,000 to the town’s surplus fund balance at the end of this year — much of it savings from not having schools open the last four months of the academic year.

Money saved this year might be made available to the schools later, beyond the 1.5 percent increase, through an understanding with the finance board that the school board could come back for a supplemental appropriation in the fall, when the full cost of reopening schools under threat of the virus will be better understood, Marconi suggested.

“Any additional funds they can save, they’re able to allocate to help defray any cuts they feel have to be made, when it comes to programs, teachers,” Marconi said.

“Schools are a very important part of our community, and I’ve always supported them,” Marconi said. “But these are very difficult times and there are some very difficult decisions that have to be made — not only today, but another eight or nine months down the road, when we’re in the next budget cycle.

“My vote on the 1.5 (percent school increase) is with understanding any savings be used to help defray program cuts, also loss of teachers — I don’t want to see anyone laid off,” Marconi said.

All the selectmen except Connelly ended up supporting the 1.5 percent school increase — which is a “nonbinding recommendation” to the finance board.

Town spending

On a motion to request a 1.2 percent increase in town spending to $38,777,553, Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark was the lone dissenter.

“This is a catastrophe like none of us have lived through — it’s much worse than the recession. We don’t know what’s down the road,” Kozlark said.

She was reluctant to see the $15 million fund balance lowered from about 10 percent of the annual budget to just over 8 percent to cover the gap between the spending increase and the longed for zero tax increase.

“I’d be more inclined to be more conservative and hold some dollars back than to spend it now,” Kozlark said. “Use it, but don’t drain it to 8.1 percent — that’s irresponsible...

“Everyone is agreeing and saying this virus is going to come back in the fall,” she said. “We could be going through this quarantine again, we could be closing down the stores again. And then we’d really be in trouble.”

Marconi argued that even if about $3 million from the $15 million fund balance is used to cover cost increases — lowering it from 10 percent to 8 percent of the $149 million annual town and school budget — there would still be money left in the fund balance.

“We have $12 million,” he said.

“If next year’s that bad — and it could be, I don’t disagree with you, Maureen, I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball … If we have a second wave like this last 60 days come about again, and we have to spend another $3 million, we’re going to do it.”

Marconi also pointed to the current town budget, which was put together last year and held to a zero increase through a reorganization that included painful staff reductions.

“We’ve created efficiencies in our budget last year — seven full-time employees — we worked together as a team to get there. There’s not a lot of extra anywhere,” Marconi said. “ …We still have to have police. We still have people that expect the ambulance to arrive with a paramedic.”

Selectwoman Barbara Manners agreed. “We had a hard enough time last year — it was awful,” she said. “I think we’re operating as lean as we can be, and still have a functioning town.”