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Finance Board Deliberates Budgets, Seeks Public Comment



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Finance Board Deliberates Budgets, Seeks Public Comment

By John Voket

A sparsely-attended public hearing lasting less than an hour capped a weeklong succession of meetings held by the Board of Finance to gather comments on the proposed 2006-2007 budget. Last Thursday, a nearly three-hour session reviewed aspects of the $35.4 million municipal side of the proposal, which was submitted by selectmen last month. Last Tuesday, the finance board sat down for another two hours to hear about the Board of Education’s $61.4 million proposal.

Wednesday’s public hearing provided taxpayers an opportunity to express their opinions and ideas on the proposals as submitted, before the finance board takes any further action.

Amy Mangold led off the hearing telling the finance board she supported the Board of Education’s decision to drop several requested new buses. She referenced comments made by Board of Education Chair Elaine McClure and board member Paul Mangiafico that there could be other alternatives to solve busing challenges, and that not enough facts were presented to justify additional routes.

Ms Mangold said she has four children in the school system and supports quality programs in education.

“I don’t want to see any more expenses added to the parents and children such as the existing pay-to-play, buying our own school supplies, field trips, and special events,” she told the finance board. “My biggest concerns are in the fixed cost items. These rising fixed costs will force cuts in more projects, programs, and services that are needed to keep quality education in Newtown.”

She said another concern was the possible $42 million high school project under consideration.

“If we continue to think that an 8.9 percent increase along with the costly projects is being responsible, then we’re going to be heading for some major debt problems and financial instability,” Ms Mangold said.

Ruby Johnson complimented board chair John Kortze, reading from The Newtown Bee’s recent story on proposed paid firefighters.

“I feel confident that you will look at the whole picture and plan for what’s coming down the road,” Ms Johnson said. “We know our town has changed, and that we no longer have enough men working in town to respond promptly, just as the ambulance found out to be true.”

Middle school teacher Don Ramsey spoke on behalf of his fellow educators saying he did not envy the elected officials who had to sort out administrative and budgetary priorities.

“I just want to teach the kids,” he told the finance board.

Describing Newtown’s school system as “a real gift” and “the real deal,” the instructor went on to decry deteriorating condition at the middle school.

“What is troubling is when I look at the facility itself. The auditorium at the middle school…is disgraceful. Chairs are broken and esthetically it’s just deplorable. The room doesn’t even have enough space to seat one grade level, and the auditorium should be the focal point of the school,” he said.

He asked the finance board members to visit the school on a rainy day to see all the buckets placed around the facility to catch water leaking from the roof.

“To have the high level of teaching and the high level of learning that we do, and to see the facilities in such shambles, it’s a paradox beyond belief,” Mr Ramsey concluded to scattered applause.

Ray Ruzek switched gears back to addressing the municipal side of the budget. He asked how determinations were made as to which town roads were chosen for improvements.

He also asked if the town was facing any unfunded employee pension liabilities, and what if any plans were in the works to address the rapidly escalating costs of municipal retirees’ health care coverage.

“Some municipalities are already saying that a few years out their budgets could double on the cost of retirees’ health care budgets alone,” Mr Ruzek said.

First Selectman Herb Rosenthal came to the microphone to assure the audience that there was no potential for unfunded pension liabilities. He said only the police and fire departments have retiree health plans and that actuarial calculations would have to be done to determine the impact of future costs.

The first selectman said retired teachers could choose to stay on their existing medical plans, but they have to cover the cost of those plans until they qualify for Medicare.

“There is some contribution by the state and some the town, but once they qualify for Medicare, they are off the plan provided through the town,” he said.

Mr Rosenthal said regarding the roads, that the highway department had a long-term plan for resurfacing and reconstructing roads, although constant readjustments had to be made each year as the condition of roadways changed.

“The highest priority goes to main and feeder roads, with the lowest priority to subdivision roads,” Mr Rosenthal said.

Gianine Crowell, Po Murray, and Gary Davis all spoke on behalf of their recently formed grassroots group WECAN (WE Care About Newtown — see related story in this week’s Bee).

Ms Crowell said she did not know what level of impact past budget cuts had on the overall impact on taxes.

“When you divide it up over the town, and it comes to a couple of dollars a day, I would rather pay that to have a greater education system, than to take $500,000 that would have a greater impact on our Board of Education budget,” she said.

Ms Murray, one of WECAN’s co-founders, said cuts to programs for gifted children, bus scheduling, and music programs have taken a toll on the quality of the education system. She called for officials to work together to address not only school improvements, but also proposals like a paid fire department.

“Year after year I come to these budget meetings encouraging you to work on the top line and not to focus so much on the bottom line,” Ms Murray said. She also complimented town leaders for joining with the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding (CCJEF).

Mr Davis, another WECAN co-founder, clarified why there was a need for his grassroots group in the community.

“There’s not enough focus on the long-term vision for this community,” he said. “We’re urging the Board of Education to really look long-term, to look at the most educationally sound system and not worry so much about the dollars and cents.”

Sara Beier, the president of the townwide PTA Council, wrapped up the public portion commenting on the education budget.

“The Board of Education has put forth a very lean budget, but we have to have a little bit of flexibility because new students are coming in during the year,” she said. “Removing more will take away any of that flexibility we might have as these new students come in.”

She pointed out that more than 100 parents attended a recent meeting for the new charter school in Danbury, and that number far exceeded even the number of residents who turned out for this week’s budget hearing.

“That shows me people are looking for an opportunity in education, which is something we cannot deliver in these budgets,” she said.

Finance board chairman John Kortze told The Bee that he hopes to complete any further action on the budget at next Wednesday’s deliberation session, scheduled at the Reed School at 7:30 pm.

In the event that evening does not yield a finished product, the board has a contingency to do so at its regular meeting on March 13. By charter, the budget must pass to the Legislative Council by March 14.

After further council deliberations, there will be a final public hearing before the budget goes up for a council endorsement and then gets passed to the voters for consideration. Taxpayers will go to the polls to endorse or turn town the proposal April 25.

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