$145.9-million budget gets public hearing Monday night

Budget plans that would bump spending up 3.09% to $145.9 million — combining a 4.23% school spending increase with 2.49% more for town departments — will be up for public scrutiny and comment Monday night as the Board of Finance begins its spring budget deliberations.

A public hearing on the budget for the coming 2018-19 fiscal year will be conducted Monday night, March 26, starting at 7:30 in East Ridge Middle School’s auditorium.

The finance board then has budget work meetings scheduled Tuesday through Thursday nights, March 27-29, followed by meetings Monday through Thursday the next week, April 2-5.

The Board of Finance is “seeking as much public input as possible, either at its public hearing Monday night or via email,” said chairman Dave Ulmer.

Budgeting for fiscal year 2018-19 will be tough, Ulmer said, following tight town and school budgets this year, and with Hartford’s continuing fiscal problems reducing town revenue from state programs.

“FY19 will be a difficult year as we are seeing reduced revenues from state aid and FY18 is not generating a surplus that can be given back for tax relief,” Ulmer said.

The town’s tax base, or grand list, increased nearly 1%, enough to cover $1 million in new spending — but town and school budget requests are up over $4 million.

“Growth of the grand list generated about $1 million more in tax revenue, so additional spending over that will have to come mainly from taxpayers,” Ulmer said.

The town and school operating budget proposed for 2018-19 totals $145,915,552, which would be $4,367,122 more than this year’s $141,548,430.

Town Controller Kevin Redmond calculates that operating budgets as requested — up 4.23% for the Board of Education and 2.49% for the selectmen — would need a 4.28% tax increase.

The selectmen’s “non-binding recommendation” to the finance board on the school budget was for a 2.5% increase, similar to the 2.49% they propose for town departments. That would need a tax increase of about 3%, Redmond said.

Both of Redmond’s tax-increase projections assume the finance board doesn’t adjust other revenue projections or dip into the town’s $14.5-million fund balance to help support spending.

The current year’s budget uses $1.8 million from fund balance, which could also be a money source if the school board can’t cover its $92.6-million appropriation for 2017-18 and seeks more.

Capital budget

Also on the agenda at both the public hearing and the finance board work sessions is a proposed $3,711,000 capital budget. This is a list of projects and purchases to be paid for with borrowing — next year’s taxes wouldn’t be affected, but it would add $250,000 a year to future debt service. Even with the added capital spending, debt service is projected to continue declining. It’s $11,522,000 this year, and falls to $11,036,000 in 2018-19. The town’s debt of about $63 million is being reduced as it pays off borrowing taken on for the $90-million school bundle approved by voters in 2000.

Within the proposed capital budget is $949,000 sought by the school system, including $475,700 in facilities and technology upgrades related to school security. This includes $75,000 to buy 47 additional interior surveillance cameras and $68,999 for a more secure “entrance vestibule” at East Ridge Middle School, and $105,000 to strengthen glass entryways at all schools. Also included are $226,800 in upgrades to basic school technology systems that perform many functions — and serve as the platform for security controls in all school buildings.

Also drawing interest during the selectmen’s discussions of the capital budget were $570,000 for a new 63-car parking lot on town land off Governor Street — essentially an extension of the town lot by the Boys & Girls Club — and $725,000 for a new pumper-tanker for the fire department. With the sale of older fire trucks, the net cost projects to $690,000.

School operations

There’s already been considerable debate over the school budget. The superintendent’s initial request was for a 4.83% increase. The school board asked to see how that might be reduced to 3.1% — but didn’t like the changes, which included increasing class sizes and cuts to special education.

After a public hearing that included protests over other proposed reductions, the Board of Education approved the 4.23% increase now requested — a $96.5-million budget that adds back two English teachers needed to support the writing program at the high school and doesn’t reduce six elementary art teachers from full- to part-time.

The Board of Selectmen then recommended that the school increase be reduced to 2.5%.

The selectmen noted that while enrollment is projected to fall from 4,912 this year to 4,838 next year — down 74 students — the budget calls for a staffing increase from 713 “full-time equivalent” positions to 721 next year. (The 721 positions include 450 teachers, 27 administrators, 34 secretaries, 119 paraeducators, 53 custodians, 23 nurses and therapists, a technology staff of 10, and five operations managers.)

Explaining the need for the spending increase to the selectmen in February, Superintendent Karen Baldwin pointed to the additional $752,000 in special education spending — much of it for students with “social and emotional” difficulties.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “We see more and more children with mental health needs.”

Staffing changes from this year to next are a mix of jobs added and eliminated, but among the new positions proposed are two school psychologists, three special education teachers, one board-certified behavior analyst, and a half-time speech and language therapist, as well as two middle school math specialists.

A case for retaining teaching positions was made at a school board meeting by Jeanne Deming, president of the teachers’ union local, the National Education Association-Ridgefield (NEA-R).

Deming stressed “the importance of human capital in our schools. Teachers, who meet with our students on a daily basis and who do so much more than teach, serve as touchpoints, counselors, mentors, coaches, and models.”