Closing in on a zero increase: Marconi trims town departments’ spending

There’s a zero percent increase, and there’s a zero increase.
The selectmen started their budget work Monday looking at a $38-million budget proposal for town departments and road work next year that would amount to a 0.58%. Getting it down to 0.00% would mean finding about $223,000 in cuts — in a budget proposal where jobs have already been reduced through both layoffs and retirements.
The current 2018-19 budget is $38,324,000, and the proposed 2019-20 budget the selectmen are working from is $38,547,000.
With $98 million for public school operations — the Board of Education is seeking a 3.43% increase — and $11 million in debt service, the entire town and school budget would go from $144,360,000 this year to $148,120,000 next year. That’s a 2.60% increase.
Of course, both town and school budgets will have to go from the selectmen and school board to the Board of Finance, and then to voters for approval.
Health insurance
To make the town-side budget work — even without trying to get it lower — will require some successful talking with town employee unions about health insurance, First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen.
“We put the budget model you’re looking at at 8%,” Marconi said of the health insurance increase. “It came in at 18%.”
The town is slated to pay $4,599,000 in health insurance this year, and the budget — assuming an 8% increase — shows the cost of the health plan increasing to $4,847,000. The difference between an 8% and an 18% increase is $459,000 — which would push the town’s health insurance cost over $5 million.
Marconi said he and Controller Kevin Redmond were exploring having the town participate in a state-organized employee health insurance plan.
“We feel confident in the 8% there,” he said. “But it requires re-opening all the contracts with the unions.”
The 18% increase the town is looking at from private insurers is partly due to the town’s recent history of employees using their health insurance a lot.
“Our utilization rate was 150% of premium,” Marconi told fellow selectmen. “...We’ve had sickness, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
He added that it’s important to maintain good health insurance that will pay for employees’ care when they need it.
Positions reduced
To hold down costs, the town is also reducing the number of workers it has. Three employees were laid off and of the several people who left through an incentivized retirement program, three full-time positions are not being replaced. There were two positions where full-timers are being replaced by part-timers, along with the reorganization of duties.
Total savings from the program will be about $540,000 — the bulk of it in salaries but about $120,000 is from health insurance insurance savings, according to Marconi.
As they began their budget work Monday, Feb. 4, Marconi told fellow selectmen the cutting already done was driven by “our consensus to come in with a zero percent increase, because of the federal income tax changes,” which are expected to hit many Ridgefielders hard, due to the caps on deductions.
And the Board of Selectmen will be looking for more places to cut.
“It’s going to be tough,” Marconi said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult.”