Marconi is looking for cuts as selectmen tackle budget

Cutting, trimming, balancing competing priorities — the selectmen have budget decision-making sessions scheduled all next week.

“There are a few key decisions that have to be made,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

“Personally, I would like to see a mill rate under 2%, at least under the rate of inflation,” Marconi said.

That may be easier said than done.

Monday of this week, the selectmen’s town-side spending was projected to increase 2.49%. That from a current 2017-18 budget that allocates $37.4 million for town departments and road work.

And Monday night the Board of Education approved a 4.23% school budget increase request that would push school spending from this year’s $92,634,000 to $96,555,000 in 2018-19.

To work on the budget the Board of Selectmen has four nightly meetings scheduled next week from Monday, March 5, through Thursday, March 8 — all starting at 7 p.m., except the Wednesday meeting, which starts at 7:30 with some non-budget work on the agenda as well. A fifth meeting is booked Saturday morning at 10 — “if needed,” Marconi said. All are in town hall’s lower-level conference room.

Capital budget

The selectmen will also work next week on the capital budget — major projects and purchases usually paid for with long-term borrowing. The repayment of long-term borrowing doesn’t kick in during the first year, so the capital budget — unlike the town and school operating budgets — doesn’t have a direct effect on the next year’s tax rate. Capital spending accomplished with borrowing does, of course, add to debt and debt service in the years that follow. The town’s debt totals just under $63 million. The current fiscal year’s debt service of about $11,523,000 is projected to decline to about $11,037,000 next year.

The selectmen are trying to hold down how much in new borrowing is added each year, allowing the repayments to continue shrinking while still reducing the total debt — which ballooned after the $90-million “school bundle” was passed in 2000, not long after $34 million in borrowing was approved to build Scotts Ridge Middle School.

“The amount of our capital that we’ll be passing on to the Board of Finance — right now it’s a little over $3 million, we’d like it to be in the area of $2.75 million,” Marconi said of the 2018-19 budget. “We’ll have another review of capital.”

All three proposed budgets — the town operating budget, the school operating budget, and the capital budget — will go on to the Board of Finance for further work, before being sent to voters for approval in May.

Marconi told The Press on Monday, Feb. 26, that he envisions next week’s meetings as focused on reductions.

“Our current operation budget increase as of today is at 2.49% — on the town, not school. We will be reviewing that to see if we can get any further decreases,” Marconi said.

The selectmen can’t adjust the school budget, but the Board of Finance can. And by town charter, the selectmen consider the school spending as requested and give the finance board an advisory opinion.

“We have a non-binding recommendation, relative to the Board of Education budget,” Marconi said.

Fund balance

The other critical budget component over which the selectmen have no direct control is the “use of fund balance” — which is part of finance board revenue deliberations.

The town’s fund balance is a kind of running multi-year surplus, and it’s currently about $14 million.

The current year’s budget anticipates drawing $1.8 million out of that, and using it as non-tax revenue in the 2017-18 year, which ends June 30

If the finance board decided on a significantly smaller use of fund balance for next year, 2018-19, the amount that it’s reduced would, in essence, add to the tax rate just as increased spending would.

With next year’s “use of fund balance” at zero — as it is shown during the selectmen’s deliberations, since it’s a finance board prerogative — the proposed town and school budget projects to a tax increase in the vicinity of 4%. That’s before the Board of Selectmen and then the Board of Finance have done their work — and there’ll be a lot to do to reach the 2% tax increase Marconi said he’d like to see.

“That will be depending on the Board of Finance and what they approve for the Board of Education, whatever that final number is, for the Board of Selectmen, and the use of fund balance —if, in fact, there’s any used.”

Drawing down the fund balance to reduce the tax increase may be a tough call this year.

Most years the use of fund balance projected for the coming year is offset, at least partially, by year-end surpluses from the town and school budgets that close in June — unspent money that flows from the closing annual budgets into the fund balance.

But officials aren’t expecting much money to be left at the end of this year. School officials are projecting a current year deficit of roughly $1 million and have been talking about asking the finance board for a special appropriation to enable them to close the 2017-18 fiscal year in the black — it’s against the law for municipalities or school districts to end the year in a deficit.

And the town is cutting closer than usual, too.

“This year, we don’t have anything extra going into the fund balance, from an operations perspective,” Marconi said. “The town is running flat. And the Board of Education, as far as I know, is over budget.”

So officials aren’t counting on a late June replenishment of the fund balance that can be poured into next year’s budget as non-tax revenue to hold down a mill rate increase.