Budget Proposal Heads to April 5 Hearing
With a public hearing over the proposed budget coming up on Wednesday, April 5, the Harbor News took a closer look at the proposed town and education budgets. The public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. in Town Hall.
The Town Council voted on March 8 to send a proposed combined budget of $62,010,955 (a $2.3 million, or 3.93%, increase over the previous budget) to a public hearing on April 5.
The proposed town budget is $23,438,078 (a $1,561,443 or 7.14% increase), and the proposed education budget is $38,572,877 (a $783,641 or 2.07% increase).
Under the proposed budget, the mill rate would be 29.97, which would be an increase of 0.14 mills or 0.48% increase according to Town Manager Karl Kilduff. Kilduff noted that the average taxpayer’s bill would increase by $31.45 under the proposed budget.
Kilduff explained that the difference between the budget increase and the tax rate is due to growth in the Grand List and the appropriation of money in the fund balance to pay for capital projects.
At the public hearing, taxpayers can voice their opinions for or against the education or town budget. Immediately following the public hearing, the town council will hold a special meeting at which it can make any last changes to either the education or Town budget before sending the budget to a referendum in May.
The Town Budget
The town side of the budget is proposed at $23,438,078 (a $1,561,443 or 7.14% increase). The proposal eliminates no staffing positions or town-provided services. The proposed spending package increases programming in one area of the town.
“The budget includes funding that will provide for additional hours to the Senior Connections program and additional programming opportunities given the strong and positive response from senior citizens enjoying this service that was previously started. All other services remain status quo as department heads proposed tight initial budgets maintaining the current level of services and programs,” said Kilduff.
While inflation certainly plays a role in the budget increase, it is not the only contributing factor.
“There are a lot of headwinds that impacted the Town side of the budget in addition to inflation,” Kilduff explained. “The general economy created a number of impacts on the budget which increased our operating costs. As many people are already aware, electricity rates are up. The Town purchased electricity as a commodity when the market was at a low point during the peak of COVID. The term on that agreement expired, and a new power purchase agreement had to be entered into, reflecting where the cost of power is now. We are well below the standard offer provided by Eversource but still higher than the low rates seen in 2020, which results in an increase.
“Uncertainty in the stock market resulted in increased funding requirements for all pension programs. The State pension program came in even higher than originally anticipated which required additional funding when the council was reviewing the budget. The tip fee paid to take solid waste from the Transfer Station rose over the prior year. Additionally, the cost for fire hydrants also increased. Finally, since the Town is in different levels of negotiations with all of its unions, a level of additional funding is needed to account for potential wage settlements,” Kilduff continued.
Kilduff also explained some of the capital projects proposed in the budget on the town side. “Town Capital projects include addressing deferred items from prior years that are needed. This includes funding for road paving to maintain driving surfaces, a special savings account to fund fire equipment replacements, continued funding for public safety communications, building funding needed for state-mandated property revaluation and updating to the Plan of Conservation of Development, and additional funding to replace the turf at the Indian River Recreation Complex (which is also supposed to be partially funded by ARPA grant funds),” Kilduff said.
Kilduff reiterated that the numbers in the proposed budget are subject to change even after the public hearing. “I fully expect, and will recommend, further cuts to the council on the town side of the budget when they make further revisions to the budget following the April Public Hearing,” he said.
The Education Budget
The proposed education budget is $38,572,877 (a $783,641 or 2.07% increase). The proposed education budget proved to be more controversial than the town budget to the town council.
While the town council approved the proposed town budget unanimously at the March 8 meeting, the proposed education budget originally was $350,000 higher.
A motion to cut $350,000 from the initial proposed education budget passed with Republican council members Tom Hollinger, Dennis Donovan, Carol Walter, and Democratic member Hank Teskey voting for the cut while Democrats Carrie Allen and Chris Passante voted against the motion.
Proponents of the cut argued that their requested cut was to the requested increase of the education budget, not cutting from where the Board of Education (BOE) was already operating from.
BOE chairperson Erica Gelven said that the board has not determined where that $350,000 would be cut from yet.
“The BOE has not acted on any cuts to the budget as the final budget amount may still be modified at the public hearing and through the referendum process. A cut of $350,000 is significant and will be difficult to easily absorb, but the board will look at all line items to identify any changes to projections since the budget was approved, where cuts can be made, and how to minimize the impact of the cut,” said Gelven.
“Areas to revisit would be contracts, requests for resources and instructional materials, adjustments to extracurricular experiences, and overall staffing needs. The budget approved by the Board of Education in February had already exhausted all of the possible reductions that they felt could be done and still meet the current needs of students, maintain the integrity of the district’s mission, and effectively implement the adopted strategic plan. If the cut remains at that level, the commitment of the board would be to reduce the budget with the goal of maintaining the current levels of staffing and student extracurricular programs,” Gelven continued.
Superintendent of Schools Maryann O’Donnell said under the proposed budget, there will be staffing changes.
“There are staffing adjustments due to declining enrollment and the phase-out of COVID-relief grant funding. The Board of Education reviewed staffing needs and approved a budget that reduces a net total of 5.2 certified positions in the operating budget and two non-certified positions,” said O’Donnell. “There are several positions being absorbed in the operating budget that were previously funded by COVID-relief grants. This includes a social worker, campus safety paraeducators, and behavior specialists.”
Beyond inflation to goods and services, O’Donnell named “health insurance costs, contracted services for students, electricity, and transportation” as items that led to an increase in the proposed budget.
In terms of programming, the schools will be adding a new literary program for kindergarten to eighth grades.
“The budget supports the implementation of a new literacy curriculum that is aligned to the science of reading research and meets the state of Connecticut legislative mandate for approved reading programs. We will be implementing the curriculum and program in grades K to eight next year, and the budget supports necessary materials, training, and ongoing professional development,” O’Donnell said.
In terms of planned capital projects, O’Donnell said, “The capital budget request supports Eliot HVAC boiler system controls upgrades, Joel bathroom upgrades, student and classroom technology replacement, security and network upgrades, flooring replacement, painting at Eliot and Morgan, and school campus physical upgrades for safety.”
While the proposed budgets were forwarded to the public hearing earlier this month, Gelven emphasized that the work in developing this proposed budget began back in the fall of 2022.
“This year’s budget process began in October with direction provided by the Town Council and culminated with a unanimously approved budget by the Board of Education on Feb. 6, 2023,” said Gelven.
“Board of Education members carefully considered requests from staff and administration, reviewed needs, discussed parameters for budget formation, examined backup and clarifying information, and made decisions. The budget process was influenced by a primary focus on the continued needs of our students for academic and social-emotional recovery as well as inflationary pressures on contracted goods and services. The budget supports the implementation of the district’s strategic plan, and the request ensures that we can continue to meet the needs of our students,” said Gelven.
The next step in the budget approval process is the public hearing scheduled for April 5. After the public hearing, the Town Council will hold a special meeting at which it can make any last changes to either the education or Town budget before sending the budget to a referendum in May.
Though both the Town and education budgets comprise the total budget, when voters get to approve or deny the budget at a referendum in May, they will vote on the two budgets separately.
Since voters cast their vote for each budget separately, voters can pass one budget and reject the other in the same referendum.
If one or both of the budgets fail, it is revised by the Town Council immediately following the vote. Another public hearing is held the following week, and another referendum is held the week after the public hearing.