Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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Branford RTM Adopts $124.54M Budget, Supports Zero Tax Rate Increase

On May 10, Branford's Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voted in a show of bi-partisan support to adopt a Town budget of $124.54 million, supporting a Board of Finance (BOF) budget recommendation which carries no increase to the annual mill rate, for a zero-tax increase.

The budget passed by a vote of 27-1-0, following some points of discussion. The RTM's central budget area discussion ahead of its final budget vote on May 10 focused on questions raised by Rep. Marc Riccio (R, District 6) regarding the $61.19 Board of Education (BOE) budget. Additionally, for reasons he addressed following his motion to amend the Public Services budget, Rep. Chris Sullivan (D, District 6), made the sole vote against adopting the BOF-recommended budget. (See RTM Discussions at Budget Vote below for more on both topics).

The RTM's May 10 budget vote followed RTM committee meetings in April to review budgets for the town's school district and all other town departments. All committees followed the recommendations of the BOF. On March 28, the BOF recommended the RTM appropriate $61,194,374 to the BOE (operating budget and capital) and $63,329,691 for all other Town departments for the fiscal year 2022-23, which begins on July 1, 2022.

The total 2022-23 budget bottom line of $124,524,065 represents an annual increase in expenditures of $3,558,750 or 2.94 percent while also making no change to Branford's current mill rate of 29.45 mills. Next, the BOF will convene to set the mill rate. The next BOF meeting is set for May 23.

On May 10, Branford first selectman Jamie Cosgrove (R) thanked all involved in the budget process and commented that this budget marked the ninth Town budget for his administration.

"I know that it does require a lot of time and commitment; but this is, I think, looking back at all nine budgets, something that we should be very proud of as a Town and as an administration," said Cosgrove. "Yes, we're pleased that we're able, in an inflationary time, to deliver a budget with no tax increase to the residents. That was something that was very important personally, and to this administration as we went through the process. However, I think it's also important to reflect [on] the last nine budgets and what we've accomplished over those nine budgets. We have a very strong track record of being fiscally responsible. We have a very strong track record of being sensitive to taxpayers' burden. But we've addressed our liabilities. We put Branford in a better position for future generations."

Cosgrove also pointed out that over $100 million in projects has been addressed in the nine years, while debt service (payments the Town is obligated to make to repay bonds borrowed for projects) is decreasing. That, he said, is part of the reason the budget was able to be delivered with a zero-tax increase.

"That was strategically laid out over this period of time, knowing we were going to be in a time where we were going to address a lot of infrastructure and departmental needs in this Town," said Cosgrove. "So, I just want to thank this body, the Board of Finance, the Finance Department [who] all play a part in ensuring that we can continue to provide a level of programs and services to the people of Branford, while being mindful of the burden placed on the taxpayer. We are fortunate -- in our area, we're one of the lowest mill rates for this region and we do provide great programs and services and invest in our town. That's something that we should all be proud of."

In addition to thanking members of the RTM for their time, Cosgrove also noted, "... as far as Budget Number 10 next year; I'm not worried about political will. We're going to continue to do what we've always done; come in with reasonable budgets [that] meet our town's needs [and] address programs and services, while continuing to be mindful of the burden on the taxpayer."

RTM Discussions at Budget Vote

For reasons he addressed in a motion to amend the Public Services budget during that part of the RTM budget discussion on May 10, Rep. Chris Sullivan (D, District 6) later made the sole RTM vote against adopting the BOF-recommended $124.54 million 2022-23 Town budget.

Sullivan's motion, which failed by a vote of 17-9-1, sought to amend the Public Services budget to move $110,350 from wages and salary for the position full-time Public Works Director to contingency spending. As Sullivan noted, the position has been open for several years, and each year, the RTM is asked to transfer a portion of that unused salary money to cover other costs for Public Works expenditures. In addition to Sullivan, 8 of his fellow Democratic party members in attendance voted to support the motion; while Democrats Judith Barron (D, District 1) voted against and Adrian Bonenberger (D, District 3) abstained from the vote. The RTM's GOP majority voted against the motion.

The RTM's central budget area discussion ahead of its final budget vote on May 10 focused on questions raised by Rep. Marc Riccio (R, District 7) regarding the $61.19 schools' budget. Riccio later went on to propose, then withdraw, an amendment for zero increase to the education budget, saying he felt the discussion had succeeded in getting the attention of the BOE.

Ricco was particularly concerned with contracts which continue to secure raises for teachers and administrators while Branford's school ranking sits at 98 among the state's 169 towns.

"So the question is, why?" asked Riccio. "And I heard different reasons...but we keep giving teachers and administrators raises. And all I'm saying, if you feel the same way about this that I do [which is], why are we 98th – and you want to do something about it, don't vote for this [budget]."

Ricco also pointed to abstentions made by members during the RTM's November 2021 vote approving the administrators' contract (for which due to other obligations, he could not be present); which passed by an RTM vote of 18-0-7. He suggested those who had abstained from that vote support his recommendation for a zero percent BOE budget increase.

"Here's your chance to get their attention [and to] say we've got to improve this," said Riccio, adding, "...and let's see if we can help them."  He said that the district has a "tough job" facing it; including state mandates, educational challenges, Covid challenges and the town's diverse socio-economic population.

"It's not easy. Let's get them the help they need," said Riccio.

Several members from both sides of the RTM aisle said they supported Riccio's presentation, while others, also from both sides of the aisle, said that the BOE budget up for a vote included contractual obligations; so a vote against the BOF-recommended BOE budget would result in cuts to other areas, which could impact students, sports teams, the arts, etc.

The RTM also heard comments from one member of the public, Branford resident Gregg Jerolman. Among his comments, Jerolman called for more line-item transparency in the education budget and pointed to a district employee survey with a 15 percent favorability rating for district leadership. Jerolman also said RTM members stating they didn't want to take money away from the district's school children "...sounds great in a vacuum; but we're continuing to enable and embolden an entity with numbers that are not favorable."

By a 25-2-1 vote, the RTM supported the BOF-recommended BOE budget; with Riccio and fellow GOP Rep. James Stepanek (R, District 4) voting against and Rep. Clare Torelli (D, District 1) abstaining.

The May 10 RTM meeting was taped by BCTV and can be viewed at the BCTV Facebook page.

Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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