Council Trims Budget By $900,000 For Second Referendum
After several suggested but failed attempts to amend main motions, the Legislative Council voted to send a second round budget request to taxpayers with a $900,000 reduction. That will make the bottom line request $110,249,825, representing a 3.87 percent increase in spending over the current year.
If approved, the increase will generate a 2013-14 mill rate of 33.42, reflecting a 4.29 percent increase in the tax rate. A mill represents one dollar in taxation for every $1,000 in taxable property.
Reductions incorporate a $150,000 cut to the municipal request and a $750,000 cut to the school district’s spending plan. A second referendum is scheduled for Tuesday, May 14, at Newtown Middle School.
Polls will be open from 6 am to 8 pm in that single polling location, and absentee ballots will be available at the Town Cler's office beginning Friday, May 3. A special Saturday absentee voting session is also set for May 11 from 9 am to noon at the clerk's office in the Municipal Center.
The first round school budget failed by 482 votes with 1,994 supporting the request and 2,476 rejecting it; while the town proposal, which also contains all town capital debt service, failed by 66 votes — 2,207 endorsing the request with 2,273 voting No.
After several residents spoke to the council Tuesday night, officials settled in examining areas where the municipal or Board of Selectmen budget request might be able to render some further savings. First Selectman Pat Llodra reminded the panel that prior to the events of 12/14, the selectmen’s requested increase stood at 1.9 percent — with the added funds accommodating primarily negotiated pay and benefit increases for several town bargaining groups.
But following the Sandy Hook School shootings, Mrs Llodra said her budget request was increased by $570,000 to cover proposed new school security initiatives for all town public and private schools. Following the budget’s first round defeat on April 23, the first selectman said she met with Finance Director Robert Tait and both reaffirmed their commitment to bring possible savings forward without touching proposed school safety funding.
Involving Police Chief Michael Kehoe, the three officials determined they could find possible savings by reducing a contingency fund contribution by $100,000. That savings was developed by realigning the way the town youth and school resource officer at Reed Intermediate is assigned.
“The police department will find a way to fill in for the position when necessary [using existing personnel],” Mrs Llodra said. “So we can take that $100,000 and not spend it.”
She said additional savings could be derived by adjusting the way the town funds its self insurance health plans for new hires, in particular the new certified safety officers slated for hiring in July to staff the town’s elementary schools.
Under questioning by Councilman Dan Amaral about possible savings from using retired police officers instead of new hires, Chief Kehoe and Mrs Llodra concurred that new certified police officers are preferred for the duty.
“I think all this is emotional and we’re putting more on the table than we need,” Mr Amaral responded.
Security Analysis Ongoing
Mr Capeci explained that while the future plans seem clear, the chief is still doing analysis on the best possible ways to provide enhanced security at town public schools, and the council needs to be sure necessary funds are available to address eventual security needs in the district.
Councilman Paul Lundquist then pointed out that the 2013 budget is accommodating a boost of $185,000 in revenue from car tax increases following the townwide revaluation last year. But Mr Tait countered that while the amount was budgeted, the council also needed to take into account a possible reduction in state aid to Newtown that could top $200,000 in the coming fiscal year.
Mrs Llodra also confirmed with Chief Kehoe that the department has already amassed $180,000 in unanticipated overtime expenses related to 12/14, and if a federal grant that is in process is not delivered, the town will be left to find that money in the local budget.
Councilman Neil Chaudhary then moved to reduce the town budget by $150,000 — suggesting $130,000 in reductions to the contingency and an additional $20,000 that officials must find in other areas of the proposal. Mr Lundquist then requested an amendment to further reduce the contingency contribution by another $100,000.
That suggestion brought Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze to the podium defending his board’s original recommendation.
“I’m hearing it’s a very different picture tonight,” he said referring to the new information about further state revenue contributions. “Trying to figure out what is coming from the state is a fool’s errand. Taking $100,000 from roads is just as arbitrary, although I’m not suggesting that.”
A vote on the amendment saw only Mr Lundquist supporting it.
Mr Capeci then noted that budget question responses on the latest ballot indicated taxpayers wanted to see both budget requests reduced, but was happy to see on the town side that security measures could be maintained despite a $130,000 reduction. And a vote on that main motion passed 11–1, with only Mr Amaral dissenting.
The School Budget
With Ms Leidlein at the podium, the council then turned to the district proposal. Council Education Committee Chair Kathryn Fetchick moved for a $750,000 reduction, noting that it would still provide more than a $3 million or 4.37 percent increase over the current year.
While the council cannot affect line item reduction to the district budget, Ms Fetchick suggested the school board consider removing a new assistant principal budgeted for the high school, calling the idea “extravagant.” She also advised the school board to consider addressing declining enrollment at the high school.
Colleague Robert Merola concurred, saying recently hired personnel who were added when expectations for student population exceeded 2,000 may not be needed now that the student population has peaked and will likely continue to decline for the “foreseeable future.”
Council Vice Chair Mary Ann Jacob, who is a library staffer at Sandy Hook School, cautioned, however, that while a reduction is in order based on voter sentiment, she could not see how the district could continue its plans to catch up on maintenance and technology programs while enhancing school security if district grants are not awarded in the amounts officials requested.
“I agree a lot of high school costs can be reduced,” Ms Jacob said. “I have two kids in the high school and I spend a lot of time there. I don’t think we need a new AP or extra staffing.”
Ms Jacob then offered an amendment to reduce the district reduction to $500,000.
At this point Ms Leidlein told the council that her board has been advised not to reduce maintenance and technology programs any further, and that if additional reductions to the existing proposal are made, the school board may be forced to look at eliminating new initiatives such as a proposed full-day kindergarten.
She pointed to a class full of Sandy Hook students moving to Reed School in September, which could bring significant added demands resulting from post-traumatic issues and possible disciplinary concerns. Ms Leidlein also noted the extra demands on existing staff because the district will be entering into reaccredidation procedures with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).
Superintendent Janet Robinson then revealed that post 12/14, the district was making substantially more referrals of students into special education, which could drive that budget line to exceed the amount available in the current failed proposal.
After some additional discussion, Councilman George Ferguson observed that $750,000 could represent the “sweet spot” that satisfies enough taxpayers to pass the second round request. At that point a vote on the amendment failed 8–4, and the main motion to reduce the school increase by $750,000 passed 9–3 with Ms Jacob, Mr Lundquist, and Councilman Dan Honan voting against it.