Finance board gets tax rate under 2% in proposed budget

Squeezing down spending increases by close to $1 million and pushing up projected revenues, the finance board put together a $141.5-million town and school budget that would mean a 1.92% tax increase next year.

“We’re trying to do our job for the taxpayers,” chairman Dave Ulmer said Tuesday night, as the finance board finished up a week and a half of work on the 2017-18 budget.

“I think we knocked it around pretty good, and the voters will see it,” said Marty Heiser, the finance board’s most aggressive advocate of cuts, summing up work that would hold the spending increase to 1.81%.

The finance board’s product — a $92.6-million school budget, $37.4-million town budget, $11.5 million for debt service, and a capital budget of $4.3 million — will be judged by voters in early May.

The $93-million school budget got the biggest haircut Tuesday night — an $884,000 reduction that lowered its percentage increase from the 3.48% requested by the Board of Education to the 2.5% recommended by the Board of Selectmen.

The selectmen’s budget was also trimmed, getting a $60,000 cut that reduced the total for town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, town administration — as well the annual road and infrastructure work to a total of $37.4 million, a 2.22% increase that’s down from the 2.39% spending hike sought by the selectmen.

The 1.92% tax increase needed to support that spending was achieved not only by the cuts but also through the finance board’s plan to siphon $1.8 million from the town’s fund balance and use it as non-tax revenue in the coming year.

The move leaves the fund balance — a year-to-year surplus sometimes called the town’s “rainy day fund” — at about $13.7 million. That’s about 9.7% of the total annual budget, slightly above the average 8%-to-9% range.

School cut

School board Chairwoman Fran Walton said after Tuesday’s meeting that the $884,000 reduction in the school proposal would be felt in classrooms.

“I’m disappointed with the budget cut, as it will have an impact on education in Ridgefield,” Walton said. “The BOE will consider the revised target over the next couple of weeks and bring it to our April board meeting.”

“This isn’t a cut to the budget, it’s a reduction to the requested increase,” said Heiser, who proposed the $884,000 school budget cut.

He noted that the reduction would bring the education increase down to the 2.5% recommended by the Board of Selectmen in its “non-binding” opinion.

But the school board, Heiser said, had not reduced the superintendent’s requested budget at all, and had “just passed it through” to the finance board without cuts.

“In an environment of continuing decreases in enrollment, it isn’t reflected in the budget,” he said.

Neighboring towns including Wilton, Redding and New Canaan were all discussing school budget increases at or near zero this year, Heiser said.

Will it pass?

Jessica Mancini, who seconded Heiser’s motion, said she was worried about the budget passing at referendum.

“I’m concerned about the environment in the community, and lack of support so far,” she said.

Michael Raduazzo, a former school board member, said it was important to reduce spending so the tax rate would be reasonable without “depleting fund balance to the point where we really hamstring ourselves” if money’s needed to handle expected cuts in state support.

He supported the reduction to a 2.5% school increase.

“It’s looking with fiscal responsibility to the town and keeping things in check,” he said.

Sean Connelly, recently appointed to a vacancy on the board, said he disagreed with Heiser’s assertion that “the superintendent created a budget and the Board of Education rubber-stamped it.”

He also wasn’t convinced by the comparisons to neighboring communities like Wilton, Redding and New Canaan.

“The other towns were able to keep their increases lower, but their cost per student is much higher,” he said.

Connelly ultimately said he’d support the reduction to 2.5%. Like Raduazzo, he worried about expected cuts to state funding that town taxpayers might have to make up for.

“It’s the overall concern about external environment,” he said.

He recalled hearing “a lot of pressure about school start times,” and wondered how much voter support there’d be for a budget that didn’t address that issue.

Mancini said she, too, worried about lackluster support.

“School start times, that isn’t in this budget,” she said.

She thought this year’s school budget might be in trouble. “All the PTAs weren’t backing this. Last year, it was only passed by 16 votes.”

“This was a difficult one,” Ulmer said.

Uneasy feeling

He recalled last year’s budget — when a town increase of 2% passed comfortably, but a school budget hike just under 5% squeaked by in “a very close vote.”

The finance board, he said, has worked hard over the years to keep increases in town and school budgets of a similar proportion, in the 2% range, but in the last two years the school budget’s growth had started outpacing the town’s — 4.99% last year and 3.48% proposed this year.

Still, Heiser’s $884,000 cut proposal, bringing the increase down to 2.5%, left him uneasy.

“Maybe it shouldn’t have been this much,” he said.

But keeping the schools to 2.5% appeared to have the support of a majority on the finance board, and had previously been backed by a majority of the selectmen.

Ulmer supported it, reluctantly.

“I do think this is going to be a really tough vote in the town,” Ulmer said.

Cut more?

Veteran tax critic Ed Tyrrell asked to address the board, and urged it to cut more.

“I request the Board of Finance vote no on this motion,” he said. “There is no good reason why the Board of Education needs a 2.5 % increase when our neighbors, Wilton and Redding can get by with zero. No other town in our DRG played the special ed card the way our Board of Education has played it. Our schools are just as good as the others in our DRG even though we spend less.

“The amount of tax dollars we spend on the schools has little to do with how good an education our children receive,” Tyrrell said. “We do not need to catch up just for the sake of catching up. Administrations have little to do with how good our schools are. We have great schools now; we had great schools under Debbie Low; and we had great schools under Ken Freeston. We have great schools, not because of administrations, but because of the people who live in Ridgefield and their children.”

School Superintendent Karen Baldwin reacted to the cut Wednesday morning.

“The Board of Education and administration developed a budget for FY 17-18 that did meet the 2.5% municipal spending cap as agreed upon and discussed at the Tri-Board meeting in December,” she said  “The $884,000 reduction by the Board of Finance will present challenges for the district to continue to advance the quality of programs, services, and resources for all students pre-k-12. The Board will engage in discussion regarding proposed reductions at scheduled meetings in April.”

Town budget

With three selectmen there, doing a bit of lobbying, the finance board backed off an initial proposal for an $80,000 cut to the town departments budget, and settled on $60,000.

“We scrubbed this budget, as you all know very well,” Marconi told the finance board. “We wouldn’t have brought it here if it wasn’t a well-scrubbed budget.”

“It’s not that you haven’t done a good job,” Ulmer said.

“Eighty will be a big hit to us,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said. “There’s no low-hanging fruit here. We’re talking about people’s jobs.”

Marconi said the selectmen would have to consider rescinding its commitment to the town’s signature program improvement, an eight-man minimum shift at the fire department designed to reduce ambulance and fire response times and increase public safety.

“We will look at the eight-man minimum — that’s where we stopped short,” Marconi said.

Heiser thought the finance board to stick to its guns.

“In a $37 million budget a $80,000 cut is a very small percentage,” Heiser said. “It may seem presumptuous and kind of arbitrary. We have all the taxpayers out there who say ‘My taxes have continued to go up’ — and it kind of falls to us.”

Marconi noted that the selectmen had reduced positions — one full time and two part time jobs — to reach their requested 2.39% increase.

“That hasn’t been done since ’92-93,” he said.

Some finance board members were uneasy with the $80,000 cut.

“I was at 40,” said Jessica Mancini, meaning $40,000. I”’d do 60 — 80 is a lot.”

“I think I’d support $60,000 said Ulmer.

“I’m more than comfortable with an $80,000 cut to a $30 million budget,” argued Heiser.

Raduazzo asked what percentage increase would be, if the motion to cut was amended form $80,000 to $60,000.

“2.22%” said Controller Kevin Redmond.

The reduced $60,000 cut passed unanimously.

The board also did some  adjustments as it passed a nearly $4.3 million budget for capital spending — major construction projects and equipment purchases expected to be paid for with borrowing int eh bond market.

The board took $50,000 out of the project to address water problems in the walls at the recreation center — a request the selectmen had already reduced form $1.2 million to $1 million, which will now go to voters at $950,000.

The finance board also removed from the capital budget $25,000 for repaving cart paths a the golf course, $12,000 for landscape improvements around the library, and $10,800 for police bullet proof vests — with an agreement with the selectmen that the police vets would instead be purchased this year, from the surplus.

Fund balance tapped

The last thing the board addressed was bringing down the tax rate by dipping into the town’s roughly $16 million fund balance — which serves something like a family’s savings account.

Ulmer moved that $1.8 million from the town’s fund balance be used as non-tax revenue.

“That would bring us to a mill rate increase of 1.92%,” he said.

And, counting an anticipated surplus of about $1.4 million from the current fiscal year, it would leave the remaining fund balance at about $13.7 million or 9.7% of the budget — slightly over the 8% to 9% range.that board usually seeks.

“It does get us below the 2 — it gets us below a 2% mill rate increase,” Ulmer said.

Heiser opposed the motion, believing a larger portion of the fund balance — $2 million, perhaps — should be used to keep down taxes.

“We’re cutting the Board of Education budget. We’re cutting Board of Selectmen’s budget, and keeping too large a fund balance,” Heiser said. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Heiser’s proposal to use $2 million from fund balance would have lower the tax rate to 1.76%, Ulmer said. But he argued against it, saying the cuts that Heiser cited as justification were in reality an argument for caution in the use of fund balance, which is the town’s financial cushion.

“The tighter you squeeze this budget, here, and this budget, here, the more you need to keep in fund balance, because more things can go wrong,” Ulmer said. “There’s always things that can go wrong.”

The current budget uses $1.95 million from fund balance, and the board was debating over $1.8 million or $2 million for the 2017-18 budget, Ulmer noted.

With revenues from the state so unpredictable, it made sense to keep a little more fund balance on hand for the future, Ulmer argued.

“Next year we’re going to look at another $1.5 million, to try to keep the mill rate in the 2% range,” he said.

The vote was 4-to-1, with Heiser in dissent to use $1.8 million for fund balance as non-tax revenue.

In the event part of the budget — the school budget, say — was voted down at referendum, but the rest of the budget passed, would the finance board be able to consider raising its use of fund balance as part of reconsideration, Heiser wondered.

The group wasn’t sure, and Marconi said he’d have the question researched by the town attorneys.

“We also hope all these budgets pass,” said Mancini.

“I hope it all passes,” agreed Heiser.