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Board Reviews Selectmen’s Proposed $38.5 Million Budget

Selectmen Monday night quickly approved the general government’s roughly $4 million portion of the overall first selectman’s proposed $38.5 million 2013-14 budget. They will review other portions of the overall proposal continuing next week.

The municipal spending plan, which does not include the $73,042,343 Board of Education proposal, is a 1.9 percent increase — $731,155 — over the 2012-13 budget. The complete proposed budget summary and budget details can be viewed on the town’s website at Newtown-ct.gov.

“We tried to be very, very conservative in our requests,” First Selectman Pat Llodra said Tuesday. She noted the “difficulties of the economy and circumstances the town finds itself in now,” but she has to find a balance to support “the stability and growth of our community.” She feels the selectman’s budget request both supports the community, while minding the “pressure on the backs of taxpayers,” she said.

In a brief letter presented to the Board of Selectmen in the first of several budget discussions this week, she noted four main areas driving the increase: wages and salaries, fringe benefits, operating expenses, and capital.

The rise in salary and wages, roughly $165,000, covers contractual increases, enhancements for nonunion positions that are “seriously undercompensated,” as Mrs Llodra states in her letter, and which did not receive “appropriate increases for several years.”

Fringe benefits include employee medical and health insurance, life insurance, long-term disability insurance, and pension and social security sums, showing an overall increase of $104,724.

The operating expenses show a rise of $178,008, with the “major impact” of that account found in Public Works Department maintenance projects, contractual drainage work, and adjustments to reflect the “real costs for the municipal center and Trades Lane buildings,” Mrs Llodra’s letter explains. She wrote, “The demand on repair over the last few years has been at an all-time high but our funding has not kept pace…” She notes that the town is “stretching the performance life” of vehicles and equipment, and the town has not kept up with highway repairs.

The capital accounts increase of $219,267 “begins to address those significant needs,” such as underfunded equipment replacement, which results in vehicles and equipment that are “kept in use beyond their capacity.”

Regarding wages specifically, one of just a few residents in attendance Monday, David Freedman applauded the first selectman’s budget. “I want to compliment the board for keeping [the budget] as flat as you can.” He said the small increases for town staff are “well needed,” and “well deserved.”

One point of discussion among board members focused on the Fairfield Hills Authority’s budget, which has dwindled in past years as expenses such as maintenance and security have been absorbed by other town departments. Steadily dropping in past years from roughly $500,000 to $300,000 and now down to a proposed $57,000, Mrs Llodra said it was necessary to keep some money in the account. Still retaining responsibilities such as negotiating potential leases, she said, “We have to keep them funded.”

 

Police & Public Works

On Tuesday evening the selectmen discussed the public works and police department proposals.

Regarding the Newtown Police Department budget of a proposed $6,006,201, Police Commission Chairman Paul Mangiafico made a strong argument to raise the police chief’s salary. On behalf of his commission and based on his research regarding neighboring salaries in similar demographics, Mr Mangiafico argued for a $112,654 number, while Mrs Llodra’s proposal requests the chief’s pay at $108,399. Mr Mangiafico said, “We concluded that he is significantly underpaid and deserving of an increase.”

Comparing his suggested salary to the budgeted number, he said, “We do not feel we should penalize him with a $4,000 shortfall.”

Considering Mr Mangiafico’s points, also expressed in a letter and background information that he submitted, Mrs Llodra both agreed with his arguments, but stood by her number. “I also think the chief is undercompensated, so are all our municipal employees.” She stressed that “all we can do is incremental progress. She also noted that in the last several budget cycles, the chief’s salary has gone up roughly $10,000.

Although conceding Mr Mangiafico’s statements, Mrs Llodra said, “We can’t make up for the undercompensation in one year.” Selectman James Gaston agreed with the first selectman that the increase is a two- to three-step process, and to raise the salary all at once would be a “monumental leap.”

Urging Mr Mangiafico to make his arguments on the Board of Finance level, she said, “It’s not a demonstration of his worth; I think we are lucky to have him and I wish we could show that in dollars and cents.”

“Respectfully, I think we can,” Mr Mangiafico said. “It’s the right move.”

Mrs Llodra raised another point supporting her desire to keep the chief’s proposed salary at $108,399. “Several key positions are woefully underpaid,” she said. Reluctant to single out one person’s salary, she said, “There is a host of people, we are trying to move them all up incrementally.” Selectman Will Rodgers voiced his strong agreement.

Police Captain Joe Rios soon noted his department’s “responsible,” and he appealed to Mrs Llodra to make a plan and open discussion about salaries within the department.

“It’s a problem we need to be acutely aware of,” Mrs Llodra said.

Selectmen voiced no problems with any of the department’s funding requests and approved the budget — roughly 90 percent of which reflects contractual salary increases — and a 3.5 percent increase from the prior year. The budget, which the police commissioners reviewed prior top 12/14 does not reflect any school security-related changes that may be reflected in the police department’s budget. Modifications can be made at a later time, the selectmen said.

Of the department’s 43 sworn officers, all but one are back to work following 12/14. Mr Gaston expressed his concern for officers since then and also noted that the number of officers on the force is down from roughly 46 several years ago.

Captain Rios said that yes, they are worried about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. Mr Rodgers noted that PTSD symptoms could occur months later.

Commissioner Joel Faxon stressed, “We have to anticipate problems in the future and have a plan for that.”

While other topics such as vehicle maintenance, department software, overtime costs, some warranting future discussion, the three selectmen approved the 2013-14 spending proposal.

Public Works Department Director Fred Hurley next offered comments on his department’s $6,274,762, a 4.8 percent increase from last year. Both he and town engineer Ron Bolmer explained the $1 million capital road improvement item — the department’s largest item after payroll, budgeted at $1.7 million. He and Mr Bolmer noted some “big issues” on several town streets regarding drainage. In some areas concrete grates and basin tops are failing, for example.

As Mr Hurley explained his plans in coming years to budget for repairs and maintenance in a way that would avoid a future need to bond and borrow funds, Mrs Llodra advocated doing the job “well, and do it right.” Certain budgeted maintenance activities have plateaued, rather than move ahead, Mr Hurley said. “If we maintain we won’t arrive at a point with a lot of failing infrastructure,” he said.

Favoring the approach, Mr Gaston said, “I think staying away from bonding is my preference as well.”

After several questions the selectmen approved the highway budget following about 30 minutes of discussion.

The municipal and education budgets will be presented separately to voters this year. In her presentation to the Board of Education on January 15, Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson proposed a 6.54 percent increase for the 2013-14 fiscal year, representing a $73,042,343 budget. The school board is set to review the budget before adopting it on January 31. The proposed budget will then be passed on to the Board of Finance for review before going to the Legislative Council.

The split budget vote is new, mandated by a charter change ratified by voters last November. Mrs Llodra said, “I have to go forward with confidence — this was what the community wanted so I have to trust that this judgment is right and hope for the best.”

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