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Finance Board Generates Dozens Of Questions On Budget Matters



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Over the course of two evenings of deliberations and presentations February 23 and 27, the Board of Finance continued to move incrementally closer to their goal of completing work on the town's and school district's 2017-18 spending proposals. The board was expected to wrap up its responsibilities Thursday, March 2 and move recommended budget requests to the Legislative Council.

Selectmen have proposed a $41,251,019 municipal budget - a $733,705 or 1.8 percent increase - which also carries town debt service for capital borrowing on all town and school projects. That proposed debt service cost in next year's spending plan is $9,125,474, a decline of almost $200,000 from the current year.

During his presentation February 23, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, shared news about reducing the proposed $75,120,605 2017-18 school budget by $145,000, to $74,975,605 - taking the former 1.98 percent increase request down to 1.78 percent.

"Through the Dalio Foundation we are able to share with the Board of Finance …  the recommendation that you reduce our budget by $145,000," said Dr Erardi, sharing an e-mail from Andrew Ferguson of the Dalio Foundation announcing a one-time grant to support the social worker and psychologist at Reed Intermediate School for the 2017-18 school year.

Dr Erardi said the one-time grant was made possible through the district's part-time grant writer, whose part-time position is funded by The Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation for $25,000. The school board approved spending $35,000 in its 2017-18 budget at its meeting on February 2 to increase the part-time position to be full-time.

That same evening, Dr Erardi and district Director of Business Ron Bienkowski shared some other news about the current school budget. Compared to the "alarming deficit" and following a budget spending freeze the school district was facing at this time last year before balancing the budget, Dr Erardi said this year, for the 2016-17 fiscal year, the district is currently projected to be more than $400,000 "in the black."

"Really what this is means is, when [Mr Bienkowski] reports a $472,000 to the good, if there are no surprises - if nothing happens that we don't know about - we will have a significant fund balance to return or to be directed by the [finance board] or the [Legislative Council] at the end of this school year," said Dr Erardi.

The superintendent later explained the money predominately comes from adjustments in the district's special education department - from marginalizing legal council, mediation time, and providing in-district options instead of placing students out of district. District Director of Pupil Services Deborah Mailloux-Petersen said her department has made many efforts, with the support of the administration.

Dr Erardi said those efforts brought programs "in house" and focused on being better listeners. The superintendent and Ms Mailloux-Petersen also spoke to how those efforts impacted the 2017-18 budget proposal.

That evening, Board of Finance Chairman John Godin questioned school officials about bus ridership, when the district's proposed transportation spending came up for discussion. He questioned some buses with low average ridership.

"I struggle with that, because I know you have buses that are underutilized," said Mr Godin.

Mr Bienkowski said "time" is a big part of the consideration for bus routes, including dismissal time and the length of time students are riding the bus. Dr Erardi said he would bring the Board of Finance's questions to All-Star Transportation, Newtown's main transportation service provider.

Purchasing Agent Queries

On February 27, finance officials posed further questions to a number of town department heads, including Public Works Director Fred Hurley, Police Chief James Viadero, and IT Director Al Miles, and then closed with several representatives from the school district. The officials were each asked their opinion on whether the town and their respective departments might benefit if the town was to hire a purchasing agent.

Earlier in the deliberation process, finance officials were told that if a purchasing agent position is created, its credentialed professional would be authorized to issue invitations to bid and requests for proposal (RFPs), purchase orders, develop term contracts, and acquire supplies and services.The purchasing agent would also dispose of all municipal surplus town property and equipment.

The purchasing agent would also serve as the liaison between the Public Building and Site Commission and the Boards of Selectmen and Education. The officials created a compensation and office package that would be split equally between the Boards of Selectmen and Education budgets totaling $98,253, or $49,126 each.

Most of the officials acknowledged that a purchasing agent (PA) would not only provide additional resources for savings, but could protect the town by reviewing various contracts where minor errors or loopholes could end up biting taxpayers exponentially. Most also said that it would help free up individuals who were devoting an inordinate amount of time to handling purchasing responsibilities.

Armed with a comprehensive chorus all supporting the position, Mr Godin then informally polled each member of his board on whether they were inclined to support adding the position in to the current budget requests. Board member Aaron Carlson was consistent in his support for the post, as was Vice Chairman James Gaston, Sr, while Mr Godin, Sandy Roussas, Mark Boland, and Kelley Johnson seemed more likely to pass on the opportunity until next year.

Mr Boland said he was unconvinced that an independent PA could develop enough savings to justify the nearly $100,000 annual cost to taxpayers. Ms Johnson said that while she has used and seen the benefits of a PA in the private sector, she hoped to see stronger evidence that the individual could produce potential cost savings to the town.

Ms Roussas expressed "fiscal concerns" about the investment. "Is this the right year to add that salary and benefit spending to the books?" she asked.

Mr Godin said he had also worked with purchasing professionals.

"A good purchasing agent is worth their weight in gold," he said, adding that he would have preferred it went through the budget process at the Boards of Education and Selectmen, instead of being sprung on the finance board as an add-on after both budget requests were formalized.

He noted that under questioning, the school board preferred to keep social workers' and a grant writer increase versus losing them to offset the district's portion of the PA cost. And he said the town would prefer to keep a new parks maintainer position intact.

"Neither side saw advantage in the purchasing agent," he said. "We have the authority to add money, but I would rather see the position with its split costs come through from the top of next year's budget process. I'd rather see it prioritized as the budget is developed."

A 'Good Investment'

Mr Gaston said he was in favor, calling the expenditure "a good investment." He said there was a "significant probability of savings," and that the add-on represented a "short-term investment with long-term gains that has potential to pay for itself sooner than later."

Mr Carlson was so confident the PA could produce immediate offset, or even greater savings, in year one above and beyond the salary and benefits that he would support budgeting the savings to offset the salary.

"It's a zero-net gain in year one as long as we hire the right person," he said. "We don't want to save $3,000 in salary and lose out on $300,000 because of a lack of experience. Also you give autonomy, so you need to have the right controls. Find a way to track performance and challenge ourselves to push savings through to the bottom line of the budget."

Mr Carlson reminded his colleagues that on the school board side, they could do it on their own because neither the finance board nor council has line item authority on the district budget. Mr Gaston observed that if a PA could capture a two percent advantage on an authorized $10 million flow of spending, they would realize $200,000 in savings, or twice the budget impact in year one.

Ms Johnson said she wanted to know how much might be sent through the PA office, and to see an amended budget proposal that shows where the money is coming from and where it is going.

Mr Godin then asked the school and town leaders to come back and explain the scope of responsibility and anticipated savings they believe a PA could deliver, and "any benchmarks we can point to, to justify cost/benefit. If it was part of the disciplined budget process, the position's survival would have greater validity."

Throughout the finance board's part of the budget process, officials were asked by both Dr Erardi and First Selectman Pat Llodra to pose any questions that might require detailed answers in writing so that they could be addressed thoroughly.

Most of the school district's questions and answers .can be found here

Review questions and answers on the municipal budget here: Town BOF QA 2017-18 Budget Content

After the council completes its turn deliberating and approving the spending plans, taxpayers will be called to weigh in on the town and school requests individually, along with a number of capital spending authorizations, at a townwide referendum on Tuesday, April 25.

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