Council Opts Away from Board Budget Proposal
NEWINGTON - The Town Council has declined to proceed with a budget proposal that would have seen the Board of Education direct surplus money toward the purchase of the St.Mary's School property for use as Town Hall renovation project swing space, but a Mayor-authored letter implied that it would “explore opportunities relevant to the matter as they evolve”.

       Mayor Roy Zartarian sent the letter to Board Chair Nancy Petronio on Friday, citing the narrowing timeframe leading up to the April 18 budget adoption, as well as lingering questions pertaining to the proposed budget compromise.

       "The Council consensus is that it does not have enough time to and information to make an informed decision before adopting the budget on April 18,” the letter read.

       Petronio did not return an email seeking comment.

       “We gave them a proposal that would have kept the Mill Rate the same, and they chose not to do it,” Collins said over the phone Friday.

       But Zartarian said that there was more to consider than just the cost of purchasing the property. Lingering questions pertained to the cost of decontamination, as well as what it would take to convert the space to one functional for an office setting.

       “Will cleanup be required? How much will it cost?” Zartarian said over the phone Friday.

       But Minority Leader Carol Anest indicated that the town still has options for pursuing the agreement beyond the April 18 budget setting date once the Council does its "due diligence."

       Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins said that the agreement could save the town up to $5.6 million on the Town Hall project.

       The tentative plan-to direct $515,000 from a non lapsing surplus retention fund and $1.2 million in unspent health benefits money toward the purchase-was authored by the Board, District CFO Lou Jachimowicz, Town Finance Director Ann Harter, and Town Manager Tanya Lane.

       The Council and Board held a couple of executive session joint meetings-due to it being a real estate matter-to hash out a way for the Board to gain its stated “baseline” 2.49 percent budget increase without impacting the town’s Mill Rate.

       For now, the school budget remains at the 0.3 percent, but Anest indicated that Democrats will likely propose adjustments before the Mill Rate is adopted on April 18.

       As for Town Hall, swing space has been a question mark for the Town Hall Project Building Committee, which is trying to decide between east/west and north/south alignment schemes-the latter of which is expected to cost more but with greater program compatibility due to a closer proximity to Mill Pond Park.

       An east/west setup would allow the Committee to avoid the use of swing space altogether-through a phased demolition involving the rotating of staff through different sections as construction occurs-but the group is waiting on definitive numbers pertaining to the cost of staff relocation.

       “Until the Committee has some valid numbers, it serves us to stand still with proceeding,” Zartarian said.

       Collins said that the potential for the Board to reside there after the renovation project-shrinking the Town Hall footprint further-also existed.

       As for the school budget, Collins and Board members have stated that 2.49 percent would be needed to cover fixed salary increases and retain staff. Last year, the district saw 14 teachers placed on one-year contracts, while two administrators were laid off.

       But Republicans have pointed to the non-lapsing surplus retention fund-established during budget negotiations last year with the transfer of $515,000 in leftover Board money. They based the calculation for the 0.3 percent on the Board’s $1.2 million health benefit surplus for this year, and have called on district officials to put that toward covering their needs.

       But using nonrecurring funds to cover yearly expenses sets a bad precedent, as the money may not be there in the future, Democrats-who in a previous meeting, made a failed motion to restore the increase to 2.49 percent-have countered.