The Board of Finance lived up to its reputation as the town's fiscal watchdog Tuesday night as it verbally agreed on roughly $5 million in cuts to the proposed 2013-14 budget, changing the bottom line from a nearly 8 percent increase over 2012-13 to 3.5 percent increase. There was no vote and the cuts are not official, but did represent the most specific and quantified discussion to date.
"We're in the mid to low threes, including schools. We're around 3.5," said board member Robert Spangler, quickly adding up agreed-upon cuts at the end of the meeting to find an estimate of the increase.
There were two main cuts the board supported at the meeting.
The town's total budget for 2013-2014 as recommended by the Board of Selectmen in January currently stands at $126 million, of which the school district accounts for $79 million.
One was to fund the town's Annual Required Contribution payment to the pension fund from a proposed $2.5 million to $1 million. The board members reiterated that the town has one of the most fiscally conservative expectations for returns on investment and that the pension plan is 99 percent funded.
The other was an agreement amongst the members of the BOF to ask the Board of Education to cut $2 million from its proposed $78 million budget. In making its case for a more than 6 percent budget increase, the Board of Education has told town agencies that 2013-14 is a "perfect storm" of budget obligations, but that seems not to have convinced Finance.
"The average increase in Fairfield County is 3 percent for boards of ed this year," said First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, who is the ex officio chairman of the Board of Finance. "That's a reasonable number."
A 3 percent budget increase would mean $2.2 million more rather than $4.2 million as proposed by the Board of Education.
At the Feb. 7 BOE budget presentation to the combined BOF and Town Council, councilman Roger Williams introduced a hypothetical scenario in which the BOE budget was only given a three percent increase instead of its requested 6.5 percent increase and asked if the district had a plan for that level of funding.
"Sure, weve looked at that. I would be remiss if we hadn't," Kolek replied at that meeting. "There's not a lot of room. We've looked at everything... It really won't be pretty, from where our standards are."
Estimation of the cuts was done back of the envelope style, and the rest of the cuts might be attributed to the decision two weeks ago to use $2.25 million of bonded money planned for street repair and maintenance instead for capital projects town wide that wouldn't have been bonded otherwise.
One problem the Board of Finance encountered was a nearly $1 million accounting issue with the education budget. Slide 52 of the BOE's Feb. 7 budget presentation to the BOF and Town Council shows $960,517 in revenue and expenditures that is not included in the bottom line of its budget. In the slide, the money is labeled, "State and Federal Grant Revenues" and the expenditures are labeled, "Grant Funded Positions and Programs."
"I don't know how you can approve a budget without those being appropriated," said Board of Finance member John Sheffield. "It's nearly a million dollars. We have no idea what the money is or what it's used for."
Board of Finance member Mary Cody, who has been working with the schools in the budget process, said the school district's administration could certainly answer that question, but that it might take them a while because of new staff.
"If it's a million dollars and they can't print a report in 15 minutes, that's itself an issue," Sheffield responded, asking Mallozzi to look into the legal aspect of the unappropriated money. "Is this against state law that these expenses are not budgeted? Given what we've learned in the last year, I think we should know that."
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