Budget work: Selectmen size up spending limits

Looks like there’s some cutting to do.

The selectmen start their budget work next week with requests from town department heads that total close to $37,860,000 — about a 3.5% increase — but facing a new state law dictating that municipal budget increases be limited to 2.5% or revenue from the state will be withheld.

“To get it down to 2.5% the Board of Selectmen will need to reduce,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi Monday.

With an estimated 3% school operating budget increase, and debt service added in, the 2017-18 budget requests total nearly $142,468,000 in budget documents Controller Kevin Redmond has prepared for the selectmen to work from.

Assuming a 1% increase in the town’s tax base, Redmond projects that spending levels would require a 4.07% tax increase. But town officials say that 4% is a projected number to start from, not mill rate increase town officials expect to put before taxpayers in May’s budget referendum.

“We know that’s going to be lower,” Redmond said.

The selectmen plan to discuss the budget next Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Feb. 6 to 9. All the meetings are in town hall, and three start at 7 p.m. Only Wednesday’s session — which is a regular selectmen’s meeting, including budget discussions — is scheduled to start at 7:30.

Capital budget

The selectmen also have a separate $3,953,000 in capital budget requests to review. These expenses aren’t part of the operating budget that covers the day-to-day running of the town. They’re made up of higher-cost equipment purchases and construction projects that are occasional, rather than recurring, and can be financed with borrowing in the bond market. Paid off over time, the bond-financed capital expenditures don’t spike the next year’s tax rate, though the spending does add up over time.

Noteworthy requests in the 2017-18 capital budget include a $1,269,000 project to address water penetration problems in the Recreation Center’s locker rooms; $250,000 for a replacement ambulance at the fire department, and $45,000 for a study on replacing the Catoonah Street firehouse; and $20,000 for the police department to have consultants study traffic on Route 35, including the Copps Hill intersection and also the three-way intersection of Main Street, Danbury Road and North Salem Road.

The capital budget isn’t part of the 2.5% cap calculations.

New positions?

In the operating budget, there are eight new staff positions proposed — full- or part-time — totaling $538,820. But Redmond’s budget documents are based on an assumption that no new jobs would be added.

“That number that’s in the books now is minus additional headcounts that were requested by several departments,” Marconi said.

The new positions requested were four additional driver-laborers for the highway department, a part-time staffer for Social Services, a part-time animal control officer for the police department, a part-time “parking director” proposed by the Economic Development Commission, and an increase from part-time to full-time for the Parking Authority’s staff. The two parking-related positions draw on recommendations from the consultants who studied the town’s retail center.

Moving toward May

The process is for the Board of Education to review the superintendent’s budget request, while the selectmen review the budget requests from town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, and the town hall administrative officials. Both town and school requests are passed on to the Board of Finance.

The proposed budgets from the school board and the selectmen are then reviewed by the finance board, which puts together the final budget for May’s referendum.

Although the 2.5% cap on municipal spending increases applies to the overall budget total — not particular sections, like schools or police — both town and school officials have approached budget work as if they have to get the budgets they’re responsible for down to 2.5%.

Certain spending categories are excluded from the 2.5% cap. One is special education, which should make the school board’s job less difficult.

Another area exempt from the cap calculations is debt service. This may actually make the selectmen’s job harder. Ridgefield’s debt service is decreasing next year by 4.46%, from $12,060,000 to a bit under $11,523,000, and with debt service excluded from the calculations, that $537,000 savings won’t be available to offset spending increases elsewhere.

Marconi is frustrated that the state’s cap calculations are based on spending insolation — ignoring revenue — so modest anticipated growth in the town’s grand list may help with taxes but not with meeting the state’s 2.5% cap.

Redmond’s calculations are that the selectmen will need to cut about $367,000 from the budget that they control — town departments, plus road repairs and infrastructure — to get their increase down to the 2.5%.

If town and school officials don’t keep the combined increase within the 2.5% cap, the town stands to lose a projected $183,000 from the state’s municipal revenue sharing fund.

So 2.5% is the goal — even if officials aren’t happy about it.

“We’re just starting,” Marconi said, “the first year of the 2.5% cap that our legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has decided the municipalities in the state of Connecticut need to live within. “Interesting statue, given that the legislators themselves have not been able to live within their statutory cap — but apparently that’s OK.”