Hines Sight / Who's satisfied with a 5% budget increase?
At first glance, First Selectman Ken Flatto's $264 million proposed budget for fiscal year 2011-12 seems unacceptable. It is a 5 percent increase over the current budget of $251.5 million. Five percent? Wow. We have not seen an increase like that in a few budget years. The increases in the last two budgets were less than 3 percent.
In his budget message, which can be found at www.fairfieldct.org, Flatto reports that the proposed budget "represents an effort to deal with fiscal realities." He also states, "Our town budget finances crucial community services, from public safety to education to support for the elderly. A slight uptick in revenues and grand list growth, along with an increase in commercial property assessments, reduces budgetary pressure away from most residential taxpayers." More on that later.
The majority of town departments, under Flatto's proposal, will see little increases and in some areas, decreases. Retiree benefits would jump 33.5 percent, and the Department of Public Works by 9.7 percent.
Flatto proposes no increases in appropriations to private agencies, except for the Fairfield Museum and History Center and Southwestern Regional Communications Center. Capital improvements would get a 15 percent increase for projects for the schools, public works, public safety and recreation. Some of the original requests from the departments were reduced in Flatto's budget package.
And then there is the Board of Education's $148.5 million request. The school superintendent and board had the audacity to propose a budget with a 5 percent increase. Included in their request was the addition of 19 full-time equivalent staff positions and a 3 percent raise for some administrators. That is a lot for taxpayers to handle, even though they are just starting to emerge out of a dark economic period.
Flatto, perturbed from the start, is recommending a 3.75 increase in the school budget. He believes his proposal of $146.9 million for schools is more than reasonable. "This is not the time to ask for more employee positions. The growth in the school district's population has stabilized and is growing by less than 1 percent next year, while elementary population continues to slowly decline."
At a press conference two weeks ago when he presented his recommended budget, Flatto showed his agitation at the salary increases for school administrators. As reported in the Fairfield Citizen, he said, "To ask for increases for individuals who are making more than the police or fire chiefs make is unfathomable and unreasonable. There are a number of highly paid individuals proposed at a 3 percent increase. Their salaries are high already. People making more than these top town officials should tighten their belts and forgo a raise."
Taxpayers should be thankful that Flatto finally got tough with school officials. His annual State of the Town address at the end of January did little to give residents' comfort that he was paying attention to the school administration's attempt to tap taxpayers' dry. That address never even mentioned the proposed school budget. Maybe he was saving his frustration and stronger words for the smaller confines of a press gathering.
Now, what all this means for taxpayers is hard to tell. If you read Flatto's budget message or his comments in news articles, many of us can stay home and count our money, which we will be allowed to spend on something other than taxes. He envisions a 4.2 percent increase in the mill rate from 21.45 to 22.36.
He explains it this way: "Due to the town wide reassessment, there will be no tax increase this coming year for the average residential taxpayer if this budget is adopted. Any home assessed at less than 87 percent of their home's prior 2010 assessment will experience a tax reduction dependent upon how low your new assessment fell."
If you can get through the confusing language, you might find a surprise at the end. I, for instance, did a little math and discovered that I might be one of those homeowners to see a reduction in taxes. On the one hand, seeing the value of my home decreasing is upsetting, but on the other, if I can save some money, I'm happy.
Flatto goes on to say, "Over 60 percent of homeowners will therefore have slight or significant property tax reduction from their current tax bill after this budget is completed. In other words, most homeowners' new reassessed values more than offset the 4 percent proposed budget mill-rate change. However, approximately 30 percent of our residents will experience a tax increase of 4 percent or more due to reassessment and the proposed budget."
There is a long road ahead before any of us know for sure what the tax picture is going to look like. The budget will go to the boards of Selectmen and Finance in a series of hearings, which were scheduled to begin last night. The entire budget must be adopted by the Representative Town Meeting in May, then the mill rate must be approved by the Finance Board the same week. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.
Is there more that can be trimmed? Undoubtedly. A lot more? Probably not -- without hurting services and programs.
If residents are not comfortable with a 5 percent increase in the municipal budget, they will have a chance to have their say. To see when the public is allowed to speak on the spending increases -- or decreases -- check online at http://cal.fairfieldct.org/content/111/113.aspx
This is residents' time to get involved in a matter that affects all of us.