The Town Council approved a $90.3 million budget Saturday morning on a 5-2 vote. The decision, with Democrats John Vibert and Mike Demicco opposing, came after four hours of discussion. The budget represents a 3.1 spending percent increase over the current year.
Both parties entered the discussion looking to reduce the 4 percent increase in the Town Manager’s recommended budget, swollen from a 3.55 percent increase requested by the Board of Education and an almost-doubled allocation for long-neglected capital improvement projects.
The motion, made by Republican Patty Stoddard, brought the Board of Education’s figure down by $431,356, from a 3.55 percent increase to 2.75. Conversely, it brought the Town’s operating budget up from a 2.04 increase over the current year to 2.28 percent. That change came after a discussion of several items in the Town budget that Town Manager Kathleen Eagen said she had underfunded, including funding for a townwide survey, economic development money focusing around Batterson Park, money for Dial-A-Ride and for professional services for the Fire Department.
If approved at referendum May 3, the council’s budget would increase the mill rate from 21.27 to 21.9, an increase of 2.95 percent. The impact for an average homeowner (as defined as someone owning a house valued at $258,899) would increase by $162.34.
Discussion centered around the schools’ need for a rebuilding year after four years of cuts depleted programs and forced teacher layoffs — and whether taxpayers can afford to pay for one. Council members agreed that capital projects on both the school and Town side of the budget have been neglected and are dire need of funding.
“I would love to put the entire Board of Education budget in this budget but I just don’t think with what the town is expecting it’s doable,” Stoddard said. “Still, I hope the board can do some rebuilding with this.”
Vibert, who made two of his own motions to fund the original education and Town budget requests, said that though the board had secured a zero increase in teacher salaries through contract negotiations, the board has little discretion in its budget due to pensions, benefits and state mandates for special education. Technology funding, which has been deferred year after year, is no longer discretionary, either, Vibert said, since the state has mandated standardized tests be given on computers starting in 2014. A new policy between the Board of Education and Town Council requires the self-insurance fund be fully funded, too.
“You’re not buying into a rebuilding year; you’re not even funding the Board of Ed enough to fund mandatory things,” Vibert said. “I clearly think those dollars we’re putting in for that very, very modest rebuilding start are funds we need to have in there… I don’t see where good things happen in a $500,000 reduction in the Board of Education budget.”
Mike Demicco put it bluntly.
“We go through this discussion every year… I fully appreciate it’s up to the Board of Ed to decide how to spend the money and decide which funds they have to cut money out of but it’s up to us to give them a dollar figure,” Demicco said. “It’s like telling someone ‘which meal do you not want to have: breakfast, lunch or dinner because we don’t have enough to give you all of them. That’s what we tell them every single year.”
Council chairman Jeff Hogan was looking for a balance between meeting needs this year and preparing for the coming revaluation, which could increase residents’ taxes by 10 percent.
“We’re still really in difficult times. I’m not convinced the average taxpayer is able to pay a lot more,” he said, adding that he believes there is some opportunity for the schools to rebuild. “Implications from revaluation in town are substantial and a little scary… I believe this is a responsible budget.”