Hines Sight / The pressure's on the Representative Town Meeting
After all the warnings and posturing and talk about relieving the burden on residential taxpayers, the boards of Selectmen and Finance last week did nothing about it.
OK, so they made some cuts in spending in several town departments, but like an old-fashioned shell game, they moved the money they cut into the worker's compensation and medical reserve accounts, which had been used to offset budget cuts in the past, raising a red flag from the bond-rating agencies. In addition to the $1.6 million that First Selectman Ken Flatto trimmed from the Board of Education's proposed budget, the selectmen cut, and the Finance Board adopted, an additional $400,000.
But when all was said and done -- after weeks of deliberations at joint public hearings -- a $264 million budget proposed for 2011-12, which begins July 1, changed by only $6,985.
Equally as astonishing is that a few weeks before the boards' final actions, the members of the Finance Board heard the majority of speakers at a special Saturday forum on the budget say that they wanted deeper cuts made. While really deep cuts are not possible because of contractual agreements and increased utility expenses, there always is built-in fat, especially in the education budget.
Both Selectmen Sherri Steeneck and Jim Walsh said at their budget-setting session that they received many e-mails from residents asking that taxes not be increased at all. Steeneck said to achieve that would mean $12.2 million in cuts. Yes, that's a hefty sum and a pipe dream. Steeneck did attempt to cut an additional $3.5 million from the school budget, but was not supported by Flatto or Walsh. She then withdrew her request and instead sought a $1.9 million cut. That too failed to get support.
But it will be nice and welcomed when someone starts to take a serious look at consolidating services across the board and searching for ways to creatively provide town and school services so expenses can be trimmed. Do we really need librarians in each of the schools in this day and age of information technology? I'm just askin'.
The only stand, sort of, that the Board of Finance took was in not approving salary increases for the jobs of first selectmen, selectmen and town clerk, all of which are up for election in November.
Those positions, which are four-year terms, will see no increase in pay in each of the first two years, then 3 percent over two years. Those combined salaries add up to about $240,000 a year. That's a pittance, especially when one considers that the school administration is proposing the full-time equivalent of more than 19 new jobs. Something's not right.
At it stands now, the proposed budget is a $12.5 million increase over the current fiscal year's $251.5 million.
What does that mean for taxpayers? The current mill rate is 19.27, but when adjusted for the recent property revaluation, the rate is proposed at 21.45.
However, Flatto, who leaves his job at the end of this month to go to one in Hartford (prior to the final budget adoption, by the way), has said that the revaluation will prove a benefit for about 60 percent of residential taxpayers and that the bulk of the commercial and industrial property owners will face a tax increase.
That remains to be seen.
So what happens now is anyone's guess.
The proposed municipal budget goes to the Representative Town Meeting for adoption at 8 p.m. May 2 at Osborn Hill School. The Board of Finance meets the next night to set the mill rate.
For some political observers (myself included), the actions (or lack thereof) by the selectmen and Finance Board on the budget is a matter of forcing the RTM to do the dirty work. Since the Republicans regained control of the legislative body in the last municipal election, they have been flexing their political muscles.
But do they have the, um, moxie to make further cuts?