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Budget Season Begins As Rosenthal Floats 2021-22 Budget Proposal



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January 19 may have been the eve of a presidential inauguration, but in Newtown it was all about budgets.

During a regular meeting that evening the Board of Selectmen got the first look at First Selectman Dan Rosenthal’s 2021-22 municipal budget proposal. That plan, if approved and moved through its multi-board vetting and approval process, would ask voters to endorse a spending package totaling $43,938,201 — and represent a 2.24 percent or $963,442 increase.

Just a short distance away at Reed School, the Board of Education also proposed its next fiscal year’s budget plan, totaling $81,080,697 — a 3.09 percent bump, adding $2,428,921 to the current year’s approved amount. (See separate coverage by Eliza Hallabeck in today’s edition.)

While attendance to the details of the municipal proposal was hampered by technical difficulties that nearly zeroed out the audio being webcast on the municipal website and a corresponding call-in service, Finance Director Robert Tait provided the budget details from his presentation.

A slightly better but still garbled audio recording was also provided to The Newtown Bee the following morning.

According to the presentation from Tait, among the top goals for the upcoming fiscal year are keeping the budget increase as low as possible, preserving same services, and increasing the capital road account by $250,000. Each year the capital road program is increased reduces the amount bonded toward that program by a corresponding amount.

The first selectman spoke to that practice as he opened the session this week.

“As in past years as we’ve tried to continue [improving] roads I think we’ve done quite well with the Board of Finance and the Legislative Council’s support,” Rosenthal said of the annual capital commitment to slowly bring the capital roads budget line back to a level where the Public Works Department could then handle its maintenance through its operating budget versus major capital infusions.

If the budget were introduced without that single investment, the proposed increase would total 1.66 percent.

Tait explained that the budget plan also reflects a change in the way Newtown budgets its pension investment expectations beginning in 2021 and continuing for the following four years. Rosenthal said actuaries advising the town suggested continuing the practice of reducing the return assumption for pension fund investments, which resulted in the modest increase of $26,000 in contributions in the coming year.

Rosenthal said it was a good alternate versus artificially estimating higher returns, balancing the immediate impact while avoiding a single significant cash allocation. By year five (2025-26) that discount rate will be 6.5 percent.

The final goal involves promoting and encouraging a “can do” spirit, which means “if the town can do it for less, then let’s do it.”

Crunching Some Numbers

Tait reported that municipal department head requests represented a 3.16 percent budget increase, which he and Rosenthal trimmed by an additional $370,968. As with virtually all recent budgets, increases are not driven by adding or expanding existing programs, but by capital investments, payroll, and benefits.

Tait noted in the presentation that all debt service on capital bonding is contained in the municipal budget, not in the school district spending plan — and that this year, school projects represent 44 percent of all capital debt service commitments.

Municipal salaries are up by just over a quarter million dollars — a two percent bump; benefits are up 2.84 percent (+$175,747); capital purchases in the proposed operating budget are up $377,234 or 13.77 percent, and debt service on bonding will increase by 2.51 percent or $238,135.

Along with the projected wage increases, Tait noted that a maintainer, formerly a full-time position exclusive to the former police headquarters in Town Hall South, has been reduced to part-time (25 hr/wk = $32,804 annually). This position will now focus on maintenance across the town’s building inventory.

The proposed spending plan additionally eliminates the 50 percent line for a Community Center facilities manager charged to the Senior Center, generating a $30,750 reduction. Also, the currently vacant Tax Assessor salary was increased by $20,421 to market rate based on compensation for the same duties in similarly sized communities.

The municipal proposal also flags a reduction in overall operating expenses, saving $111,492. That savings came in part from $69,000 saved in the electricity account because of electricity generated by town solar panel installations.

Another $61,000 was conserved in a new contract for gasoline for town fleet vehicles, and $98,000 saved in the Highway Department Sand and Salt line due to lower prices and carried over inventory.

Look to The Newtown Bee in the coming weeks for deeper and more detailed analyses of the upcoming year’s municipal and school district budget proposals.

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