School enrollment, roads and more to drive Ridgefield town, school budgets

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
Marconi

Marconi

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — Spending on roads, capital projects and school enrollment would have the biggest effect on Ridgefield’s municipal and school budgets, according to a presentation at Monday’s annual town meeting.

The total proposed town budget is about $40.8 million — a 3.82 percent increase, or about $1.5 million more than this year’s budget of about $3.93 million. The town budget would reach about $106.6 million, if approved.

While roads and the Americans with Disabilities Act infrastructure make up $1.6 million, or 4 percent, of the total proposed budget, this is a 50 percent increase from this year’s budget for this expense, which is about $1.1 million.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said a big factor in the increase in the budget for roads is that last year, the town used Town Aid Road, a state grant.

“We saved $379,000 a year from the state of Connecticut. That’s consistent. That’s what we’re projected to receive. It’s been approved to be received for next year. We don’t spend that money, we don’t allocate it. We let it build up,” he said.

Public recreation represents 16 percent of this budget, or about $6.5 million.

He said the pandemic has brought people outside, “and that’s carried over.”

He added, “the big ask” pertains to the town’s tennis, basketball, and pickleball courts. The basketball courts have been cracking for years and every couple of years undergoes ongoing maintenance. He proposed a process that will be a more permanent fix — of about 20 years or longer — and help alleviate the ongoing maintenance.

Public safety, fire and police, make up a total of 28 percent of the total proposed budget.

The police department is requesting for $7,000 for the purchase of 50 handguns. Additionally, the fire department is asking for protective gear and a cardiac monitor.

Debt service continues to come down, he saidx, with a decrease of about 16 percent over the past year — from $9.8 million to about $8.3 million.

“We’re at the end stage for the school construction that took place in 2000 to 2001. We spent about $134 million with the building of Scotts Ridge Middle School, the expansion of the high school, upgrades to the East Ridge Middle School and our elementary school so that debt is being paid off,” he said.

In regard to debt service, he said a police department-fire department combination building for the town is being looked at on Old Quarry Road.

Capital projects for public recreation include new mowers for the golf course, repairs to the Recreation Center building and Barlow Mountain Elementary School pool repairs.

Capital improvement projects total about $6.4 million. Of that amount, the largest components are public works, at 42 percent and public education, at 32 percent.

Board of Education

For the Board of Education, the 2022 to 2023 proposed budget is about $106.6 million — a 4.24 percent increase or about $4.3 million.

About 60 percent of this budget is salaries and about 20 percent is employee benefits.

This year’s budget, at about $102.3 million, increased by about 2.35 percent.

School Superintendent Susie Da Silva said when determining the Board of Education budget, leadership takes into account many factors, including existing budgets, trends in education and associated costs, and what’s impacting students.

In regard to enrollment data, there were 90 more students this year than was anticipated last year, not including the town’s preschool program.

“The enrollment at the time that the budget was created, excluding preschool, is 4,529 students. With preschool, we have a total of 4,578 children enrolled in our schools,” she said.

The greatest impact to the budget from that increase, she said, is starting this school year in September with an additional 4.5 full time educators.

“So that means is that we budgeted less 4.5 teachers that we actually needed, based on the enrollment, so that’s not including pencils and books and all that,” she said.

She addressed special education, saying there were 39 children entering the school system in September that had existing IEP (Individual Education Program) services.

“That means they came into the school district already needing special education, including outplacement,” she said. “Outplacement services are incredibly expensive and they are included in this budget.”

As an example of an outplacement, she said. “you might average $100,000 for an outplacement and you might average another $100,000 for transportation for that student. So one student may require $200,000.”

Staffing changes and needs are being evaluated, she said.

“We’ve spoken a lot on the Board of Education on how this year in particular was very difficult,” she said. “Not everybody’s coming into the teaching profession and with the pandemic, I think ultimately, people were making different decisions about their careers.”

Grand list, mill rate

In regard to the town’s grand list growth rate, Board of Finance Chairman David Ulmer said it was a “good year again” for the town.

To that extent, there has been a 3 percent growth in the grand list from fiscal year 2022. The current gear’s grand list was .65 percent growth from the previous year.

A full point of that percent, Ulmer said, is due to an abatement for Boehringer Ingelheim, which is the town’s largest taxpayer.

“When they built their buildings up at the old Dell Chemicals place they made significant improvements. The buildings were worth quite a bit. We gave him an abatement for seven years on each of them, just to keep them in town,” he said. “And that abatement comes off.”

Additionally, he said used cars usually depreciate and causes the grand list to decline. This year, used cars appreciated considerably.

He added there has been a significant amount of “natural growth” as well, building new homes. Also, he said there has been a lot of permitting going on last couple of years in terms of home remodeling and additions.

The proposed mill rate is an increase of 0.77 percent to 28.43.

“We had zero increase the year of the pandemic. Last year, there was an increase of .32 percent,” he said.

He also spoke about federal stimulus funds.

“The town will get about $7.4 million,” he said. “We’ve got half of that so far. We have spent 2.9 (million) of that.”

At the end of the meeting, which was attended by about 60 people, in a town vote, the town unanimously approved a list of capital items under $100,000 that totaled about $1.83 million.

The town’s annual budget referendum vote will take place May 10 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Yanity Gym, on 60 Prospect St. That will be the only polling place. Absentee ballots are available from the Town Clerk’s office.

203-948-9802 sandra.fox@hearstmediact.com