With projected tax hike under 3%, Financiers' big cuts hit schools, Pequot Library
The Board of Finance started a final review of town 2013-14 spending Tuesday night with a $282.4 million proposal and called it quits six and one-half hours later with a budget plan of $279.7 million early Wednesday.
The financiers' cuts reduced the projected tax increase to under 3 percent for the fiscal year starting July 1. The actions came on the heels of cuts in proposed spending approved Monday by the Board of Selectmen, which reduced the initial spending package, which had a 6.38 percent increase, to a 3.94 percent boost.
As approved by the finance board, overall expenditures would increase 2.75 percent, but taxes would rise 2.91 percent because of an expanded senior tax-relief program. The tax rate would increase from the current 23.37 mills to 24.05 mills if no more changes are made to the budget.
The Representative Town Meeting will now review the spending plans before taking a final vote on the 2013-14 budget in May.
Included in the spending reductions approved by the Board of Finance was a $1.25 million slice out of the Board of Education's $152.9 million proposed budget, but the cut that caused the most controversy and discussion was the complete elimination of any town fiscal contribution to the Pequot Library in Southport, a privately run institution.
The Pequot, which works in collaboration with the Fairfield Public Library and is considered by many residents as the town's third branch library, was slated to receive $350,000 in the original budget proposal, or one-third of its annual budget. The elimination, according to Pequot Executive Director Martha Lord, could well mean the closure of the library.
Finance Vice Chairman Robert Bellitto Jr. made the motion to eliminate the funding for the Pequot Library, as he did for all of the town's contributions to local non-profits, but only the cutting funding for the Pequot Library passed by a vote of 5-4. Voting in favor of cutting the entire allocation, in addition to Bellitto, were Robert Stone, Kenneth Brachfeld, Catherine Albin and Chris DeWitt.
Bellitto noted he made his intentions clear about town contributions to nonprofits earlier in the budget process, and that it was the same stance he took during last year's budget debate.
Several finance board members argued that it was not fair to let Pequot Library officials know at such a late date in the annual budget-approval process that they will lose one-third of their funding. The remainder of the Pequot Library's funding comes from fundraising and an endowment fund.
"This library has functioned for many years as a branch library in our town," finance member Mary LeClerc said. "They provide a lot of services for the little money we give them ... It makes me sad that we would even consider it."
But DeWitt said the town's two public libraries had to cut hours because of budget cuts last year. "This is not our library," he said, adding if the Pequot Library did close, patrons could instead go to the main branch of the Fairfield Public Library.
Albin said many argue that the town gets a lot of bang for its buck with money allocated for the Pequot Library, but added such a larger spending cut had to be considered since small cuts here and there throughout this year's spending requests wouldn't lower the tax increase.
Stone said the town has spent millions upgrading its main public library, and is putting a new roof on the Fairfield Woods branch. "Cuts have to be made," he said. "I don't believe the doom and gloom" predicted by some that would force the Pequot Library to shut down if its funding cut remains, he added.
Board of Education budget
The largest cut by the finance board, by far, was to the school board's proposed $152.9 million spending plan, with member James Walsh advocating a $2 million decrease in the request. The school district's current budget is $148.9 million.
"This is not a motion I make very easily," Walsh said. "I've always been an education supporter." The issue, he said, is one of town affordability, and looking at the entire budget, was suggested to "spread the pain."
"Tough decisions need to be made," Walsh said, "but clearly, this budget needs to be reduced." The "tough decisions" theme was repeated throughout the night, as board members filed motions proposing cuts.
He said he understood such a cut could affect school services, but that the tax increase needed to be reduced.
Walsh's attempt, however, failed after only he and Stone voted in favor of reducing the budget by $2 million.
Bellitto then proposed the $1.25 million cut. Fellow board member James Brown said some will say the cut is too deep, while others will argue it's not deep enough, but he could guarantee no one would say it was just right.
Brown said he could support the $1.25 million cut, but nothing higher.
Former Board of Education member Albin said that, in her new role as a finance member, she found herself in an unusual situation this year. "It is a number I will support this evening, " she said, referring to Bellitto's motion, "but not without some difficulty. I will support it because I know we're looking at a budget number that is unsustainable."
Albin urged the school board, however, not to "balance it on the backs of the students."
There is an anticipation that the Board of Education will be able to cut insurance costs by another $500,000 because of bidding on contracts, which would help to offset the finance board reduction.
The $1.25 million cut was approved unanimously.
If the Police Department intends to go forward with a planned unit dedicated to school safety, it will have to be with grant money or its existing personnel.
The proposed unit would be made up of a sergeant and three officers. The Board of Selectmen on Monday cut $59,640 to hire three new officers, but left in funding to hire the sergeant. The selectmen, however, added $161,763 to the department's overtime budget to assign officers on overtime to staff the school unit.
But the finance board unanimously cut the sergeant's position completely, saving $88,505 in salary and benefits, and reduced the overtime funding to $125,000.
Walsh tried to cut out the overtime for the unit completely, but failed to win the support of any of the other board members.
"It's not because I don't think Chief MacNamara's plan is a good one," he said. "I just don't think we can afford this $125,000 increase in this budget year." He said the chief should work within the budget he is given. "We're cutting the Pequot Library, and we might put them out of business," Walsh said, adding other new spending also should be cut elsewhere.
Should there be issues at one of the town's schools, Walsh said, police officers can be pulled from other areas.
MacNamara advocated for at least the new sergeant's position, which he termed "pivotal."
"We need a supervisor position," the chief said, adding the department's demand for services from the schools has increased.
The new unit is planned in conjunction with a security assessment being conducted of all of the town's schools, as well as a program of enhanced communication between police and the schools.
The Police Department, which now has a $14.7 million budget, would stand to get roughly $15.2 million in 2013-14.
After seeing its $3.5 million line item for paving slashed $500,000 by the selectmen, the Department of Public Works took a $200,000 hit during the finance board deliberations in personnel and contractual services.
In an 8-1 vote, with Chairman Thomas Flynn casting the dissenting vote, the board cut $50,000 for contractual services and $150,000 for two positions that are currently unfilled.
"I think we've got to move the needle on this if we really want to help the taxpayer," Walsh said. "We get out of two pensions going forward."
Public Works Supt. Scott Bartlett said the department contracts out services in areas where a private company can do a job for less, such as all the mowing for town parks, but said the services his crew provides has expanded over the years.
"Every department has a go-to if something happens," Bartlett said. "We are the town's go-to department ... Nobody else steps up to the plate, it's the DPW."
He said the DPW works seven days a week, with weekends staffed by private contractors or the department's weekend staff, which is not working overtime, but straight time.
Walsh made an unsuccessful motion to further cut the paving budget by another $250,000. Of the $3 million in the current budget for paving, $1.9 has been spent. "I could easily spend the $600,000 by July 1," Bartlett said, but officials are waiting to see how much of that $600,000 may be needed to pay for overages in other DPW accounts.
"It's a financial decision," First Selectman Michael Tetreau said.
Brachfeld said he couldn't support another in paving money. "We worked extremely hard on this board to come up with a plan," to fund a road-paving schedule, he said. But Stone said he believes the roads are in good shape and not paving another $250,000 worth of roads won't matter much.
Bartlett said he already has assigned the roads for next year's paving, and has three more years at $3.5 million, promised by the finance board several years ago.
He offered to take anyone for a tour of the town's roads. "The need is real," he said.
Only Stone and Walsh voted in favor of the cut.
The department's bid for $224,000 to replace a 45-year asphalt paving truck was denied by the board in a 5-4 vote. "I'm not enjoying making these cuts, but if I want to move the needle on these tax cuts, I've got to push some things off," Walsh said.
The DPW's current budget is $15.2 million.
Fairfield Public Library
The board cut $130,589 from the Fairfield Public Library budget, in several different areas, including the cut of a library associate position that carried $84,088 in salary and benefits.
Town Librarian Karen Ronald said with the proposed budget, the library will be able to restore hours cut last summer, but asked the board to consider taking an additional proposed cut of $82,600, earmarked for a reference librarian, from the materials budget instead. The motion to cut the reference librarian was made by Walsh.
Cutting the position, she said, would "really hurt" library services. "Will it affect library hours?" Walsh asked. "No, the quality of service," Ronald replied.
Walsh said the position has been open for the past year. "Clearly, we've been living without this position," he said.
The board voted 6-3 to take the $83,600 from the materials budget.
The public libraries would get roughly $4.3 million under current plans for the new fiscal year.
The controversy over elimination of $350,000 in funding for the Pequot Library began when the Board of Finance turned its attention to 19 outside, not-for-profit groups that the town has traditionally helped to fund, with amounts ranging from $3,000 for the Connecticut EMS Council to the library funding.
"I'm going to make motions to zero out all the not for profits," Bellitto said. "I don't believe the town can afford to make any charitable contributions this year."
Bellitto did try to reduce all of the agencies, but his attempts and those of Walsh to cut those nonprofit accounts, first by 10 percent and then by 5 percent, all failed.
He said board members have heard from residents who say they can't afford a substantial tax increase, and the finance board in response made a substantial cut to the Board of Education that will affect 10,000 children. "This is what tough choices look like," Bellitto said.
DeWitt, who is chairman of a committee that is supposed to determine criteria for what outside agencies the town may fund, said he couldn't support no money for any entity below a $50,000 request threshold, but would ask for reductions for those who seek more than $50,000. He did not, however, end up making any of those motions.
"I cannot cut any of these budgets fully to zero," LeClerc said. "I believe they all provide services to Fairfield's residents. I could support a cut of maybe 5 percent to all, but that's probably as far as I could go."
Stone said he's been in favor of cutting the funding for nonprofits "for a long time. I don't think it's the town's business to be in the charitable business."
Brown suggested that if board members were serious about cutting the nonprofit funding to zero, the agencies deserve a fair warning. He said they should be told at least a year in advance to give them time to figure out how to replace the lost funds.
Bellitto said fair warning had been given. "I've made this motion three years in a row," he said.
In the end, however, only the aid for the Pequot Library got cut.