RTM approves budget with 1.71% tax hike
FAIRFIELD — The Representative Town Meeting, in an evening that included various caucuses and votes along party lines, approved the town’s 2019-20 budget with cuts to the Department of Public Works and schools.
After Monday night, the Fiscal Year 2020 budget comes in at $316,416,739 or a 3.68 percent increase in expenses from the current year.
According to Chief Finance Officer Bob Mayer, the mill rate would amount to 26.81 mills, representing a 1.71 percent tax hike. The Board of Finance can still adjust the mill rate at their April 9 meeting, when it’s scheduled to set the final rate.
In a $316.4 million budget, however, a major point of discussion was $700,000 of what was an original $2.7 million allocation from First Selectman Mike Tetreau’s recommended budget toward paving by Public Works.
The Board of Finance, in its late April vote session, cut $200,000 from the $2.7 million request and placed half-a-million dollars in contingency pending a presentation on long-term paving plans in a bipartisan 8-0 vote with one abstention.
“Public Works has been able to modify their annual maintenance approach to help the town get through these challenging times,” Tetreau said, noting the original $2 million amount DPW requested and that the additional $700,000 in funds would be helpful with the ongoing Southern Connecticut gas project.
“This restoration gives DPW the chance to move forward,” said Tetreau, who is running for re-election this year.
Public Works officials Scott Bartlett and Joe Michelangelo, in a presentation on the pavement management program, made a plea to have the funds restored toward paving.
What Democrats called “micromanagement” of departments by the Board of Finance, Republicans deemed a standard request for more detail on long-term plans.
Fiscal Year 2020 Budget:
Total budget: $316,416,739
Budget increase from current fiscal year: 3.68 percent
Proposed mill rate: 26.81 mills
Tax hike of 1.71 percent
Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn, a selectman candidate, said financial long-term planning was part of the board’s responsibilities and that DPW paving requests and information were “inconsistent.”
“I wish we had seen some elements of that (presentation) during our budget discussion,” Flynn said. “We’re asking how (roads) are prioritized, what methodology is going to be used, how many miles are we getting done.”
For over two hours, the legislative body saw the Democratic majority argue in favor of the restoration — essentially reversing the finance board’s decision — in a debate that seemed to represent more than just a line-item figure.
“It seems like the Board of Finance feels that it needs to police the DPW and that’s not the function of the Board of Finance,” Karen Wackerman, RTM Democrat, said. “To put money into contingency and take it out of the budget line is to take control of it.”
Republicans, a minority in the RTM, pushed back.
“If you are concerned about whether this money will be spent on paving, the best place to put it is into contingency,” said Pamela Iacono, RTM Minority Leader. “Because the only way to get it out is by a vote of the Board of Finance and you’ll know exactly where it is spent.”
The appeal, requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, failed by one vote in what turned out to be a 25-14 vote on party lines, effectively leaving the Board of Finance decision intact.
The debate didn’t end after the appeal to restore the funds failed.
Democrats made a motion to remove the $500,000 from the town’s contingency line, leaving nearly $330,000 in that category, claiming that there was no guarantee those funds would go toward paving.
“The practice has to stop of putting things into contingency to control where they go,” Wackerman said.
The $500,000 reduction passed in a 25-14 vote, once again, along party lines.
“The $2.7 million plan for the roads that we distributed last night will need to be scaled back, but we will use the $2 million funding for the maximum benefit to our road network using the right mix of road treatments,” Michelangelo said Tuesday morning.
“Hopefully some surplus that is realized at the end of Fiscal Year 2019 can be used for paving sometime in Fiscal Year 2020,” Michelangelo added.
Public Works wasn’t the only department to face cuts throughout the budget process.
The Board of Education, which unanimously approved what was then a $182.3 million budget in January — a 5 percent increase from the current year — has faced an uphill battle ever since Tetreau proposed cutting out $700,000 from its request.
Schools did not see any additional cuts from the Board of Finance or RTM, and its budget came in at $181.7 million, representing a 4.6 percent increase over last year.
“Thank you to our elected officials! (Board of Education) still has some work to do and reduce original amount $700,000,” Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones tweeted after the RTM meeting.
In a vote that came down to party lines, Democrats cut a $25,000 allocation from the finance board to Parks and Recreation for marina investments, with Parks and Recreation Director Anthony Calabrese saying there was “no plan in place” for a potential marina renovation that would likely cost in the millions.
The budget in its entirety, coming in at $316.4 million, was approved with 29 votes in favor and 10 against.
The Board of Finance was scheduled to set the mill rate Thursday, a number they can still adjust by then, according to Budget Director Linda Gardiner.
“They may adjust (the mill rate) based on some risk factors. They may raise or decrease it in order to produce more income to cover any uncertainty or risk factors,” Gardiner said.