Tax hike of 4%? Town budget gets a hearing

Amid a volatile fiscal climate of threatened state cuts, a $142-million town and school budget that could push taxes up more than 4% — but increases spending 2.5% — will go before a public hearing Monday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. at East Ridge Middle School.

The proposed 2017-18 budget would mean a 4.3% tax increase — no spending cuts, no tapping into the town’s roughly $14-million fund balance for non-tax revenue — chairman Dave Ulmer told Tuesday night’s Board of Finance meeting.

“We start at 4.3%,” Ulmer said, and “a balance of revenue increases and cuts” could be considered to lower next year’s taxes.

“For better or worse, it’s going to fall to the board to make a hard look at the Board of Education’s budget,” finance board member Marty Heiser said. “...The 4.3% ain’t passing.”

The current 2016-17 budget uses $1,950,000 from the fund balance — an accumulation from past surpluses that functions like a town savings account.

But finance board members spoke of being conservative with the fund balance this year due to what’s looming over budget discussions, beyond the reach of town officials, in the hands of state legislators: Governor Dannel Malloy’s proposal that municipalities cover about a third of state teacher pension costs. Calculations put Ridgefield’s share at $4.4 million.

“That $4.4 million represents about a 3% tax increase,” Ulmer said.

Town officials won’t know what Ridgefield will be asked to pay until June, when the legislature finishes the state budget. And a coalition of towns — including Ridgefield — is discussing a court challenge.

The finance board’s deliberations will be in meetings next Tuesday through Thursday, all starting at 7:30 in town hall, with more discussion possible the following week.

After it reviews and possibly amends budget proposals from the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen, the financiers will send their proposed budget and tax rate to voters for approval in May.

The combined town and school budget totals $142,492,000 — rounded to the nearest thousand — which is $3,479,000 more than the current year’s $139,013,000.

The board will consider three spending proposals:

  • $93,518,000 for school operations — a 3.48% increase — requested by the board of Education;
  • $37,452,000 for town departments and roadwork — a 2.39% increase — sought by the selectmen;
  • $3,993,000 in capital spending — construction projects and major equipment purchases expected to be financed with borrowing in the bond market.

Because capital spending is financed with borrowing, its effect on next year’s tax rate is minimal, though bond repayments add to future years’ debt service.

The school budget usually draws the most passionate support, and vehement opposition.

The selectmen, tasked by the town charter, make a “non-binding recommendation” to the finance board on the school budget.

This year, the selectmen recommended that the school increase be reduced from 3.48% to 2.5% — cutting about $884,000, and lowering the $93,518,000 school budget to $92,634,000.

If the finance board did that, combined town and school spending would increase 1.87% over the current spending — down from the proposed 2.5%.

Heiser wondered why the Board of Education hadn’t reduced its budget at all after the selectmen recommendation that it be cut.

“Two people have had a bite at the apple, and nothing has changed,” he said. “Now it falls to the Board of Finance to be the bad guy.”

The discussion grew heated.

Heiser praised the school system — “It’s absolutely the jewel of the community,” he said — but said a 3.48% increase looked high.

“People are not embracing it,” he said, citing several emails he’s received.

The education increase required cuts to five teaching positions, three paraprofessional jobs and an administrator, Superintendent Karen Baldwin said.

“$680,000 worth of head-count has been reduced,” she said.

Heiser sought to press her on the total number of school employee positions in the proposed budget compared to the current budget — with enrollment falling.

But finance chairman Ulmer cut off Heiser’s line of questioning, saying there would be a detailed presentation at Monday’s hearing.

“They heard the question,” he said. “They will present their answers in a proper forum.”

“I’d like to have that number,” Heiser insisted.

Ulmer grew frustrated.

Heiser accused Ulmer of getting “emotional.”

“I’m emotional because you don’t stop at a damn thing,” Ulmer said.

Heiser said he was only representing constituents.

“I’m not the only one asking this question,” he said.