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Finance Board Recommends Budget Request With Zero Tax, Mill Rate Increase

After about 90 minutes of deliberation March 13, the Board of Finance unanimously endorsed a 2014-15 town wide budget that will require no property tax or mill rate increase.

A mill equals one dollar for every $1,000 in taxable property.

The annual budget request now goes to the Legislative Council. Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob told The Newtown Bee that she plans to receive the budget along with a presentation from finance board Chairman John Kortze March 19.

The council will then host a public hearing on the budget proposal one week later on March 26.

Council members will be considering a spending plan that, according to Town Finance Director Robert Tait, provides $111,066,204 to cover town and school services, along with the annual cost for debt service on bonding which is carried in the Board of Selectmen budget.

While the finance board’s endorsed budget request represents a 0.91% increase above the current year, because of updated revenue projections, the spending plan will actually require 0.02% less in taxation than the current operating budget — and will require a 2014-15 mill rate of 33.31, representing a zero increase.

Mr Tait said those added revenues included $562,000 in Grand List growth, $275,000 in additional supplemental motor vehicle taxes, and $152,000 in unanticipated or previously unbudgeted state grants and payments.

During its deliberations Thursday night, the finance board’s first action added $279,380 to the selectmen’s budget request to accommodate the hiring of School Security Officers - specially trained, retired Connecticut police officers who will be paid hourly and draw no health benefits from the Town.

Those "SSOs" will provide armed protection at all of Newtown’s schools beginning this fall. The approved expenditure is offset by a corresponding grant so it will have no effect on taxation, Mr Tait explained.

Finance officials also took the recommendation of volunteers overseeing the town’s self-insured employee health care program adding $400,000 to infuse the plan’s fund balance and cushion against expected rate and claims increases next fiscal year.

That expense was split proportionately based on participants, with $300,000 being added to the school district budget, and $100,000 being added to the selectmen’s budget.

Finance Board member Michael Portnoy said he was skeptical that claims and rates would increase as much as projected based on plan history and experience. And introduced a series of back-to-back amendments to first reduce the town-side insurance allocation from $100,000 to $50,000, and then to $75,000.

He similarly introduced amendments to reduce the school district’s $300,000 allocation first to $150,000, and then to $225,000.

All four motions were supported by finance board member James Filan who backed Mr Portnoy’s call for a “leap of faith,” in minimizing additions to the self-insured fund balance. But all four amendments failed by a 3-2 vote. (Vice-chair Joe Kearney was absent.)

The main motions then carried by 3-2 votes with Mr Filan and Mr Portnoy siding against both recommendations.

As expected, the finance board recommended adding $150,000 to a program providing senior tax relief, increasing the fund from $1.5 million to $1.65 million. The Legislative Council’s Ordinance Committee has already started working on how it will recommend indexing or allocating portions of that fund to applicants based on ranges of household earnings.

The council is also examining instituting an affidavit or asset test to ensure the fund is maximized for Newtown residents who need it most. That concern was echoed by Mr Filan as he weighed his decision on the motion during final deliberations March 13.

“I don’t want to make a recommendation for money for people who don’t really need the help,” Mr Filan said. “We need to make this [program] as fair as possible.”

Mr Filan also affirmed that if the funds are eventually approved by voters in the overall budget, and the ordinance committee or council fails to pass any increase or related changes to the ordinance, the $150,000 will revert to the Town’s General Fund.

First Selectman Pat Llodra added that the authority to adjust that senior tax relief fund lies solely with the council.

“The council could put back $400,000 if they decide to,” Mrs Llodra said.

“Our job is to put all the pieces together for the council,” Mr Kortze added.

The final addition to the selectmen’s side of the budget request was $200,000 specifically designated for road repairs.

Mr Portnoy asked about the recommended amount, noting that the highway department will not be able to afford doing most of the highest priority road projects in the coming year because its repair budget line is so depleted.

Mr Kortze replied that adding that $200,000 brought the overall budget request up to, but not over the flat line.

Mr Portnoy countered with an amendment to increase the road repair budget line by $500,000 arguing it would only raise the proposed mill rate by one-tenth of one percent. But his colleagues all indicated the modest increase proposed would keep the overall budget request flat, which was a measure they would support.

After Mr Portnoy’s motion failed 4-1, he supported the main motion ratifying the $200,000 addition.

The final breakdown in the finance board’s recommendations include:

*Selectmen’s budget proposal of $29,377,906, representing a $412,307 or 1.42% increase;
*Debt service on all town capital projects (included in selectmen’s request) of $10,342,994, representing a $284,070 or 2.82% increase;
*School District budget proposal of $71,345,304, representing a $300,000 or 0.42% increase.

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