Council Split on Board Budget as New Mill Rate Passes
NEWINGTON - Town Council Republicans stuck with their 0.3 percent increase for the Board of Education, citing uncertainties regarding state revenue in a tight budget year, while Democratic Councilors and Maureen Klett, as well as a wave of residents, urged them to consider the 2.49 percent Superintendent Bill Collins has characterized as “baseline”.

       The overall budget-for a 2.35 percent tax increase-passed 5-4, with Democrats citing Board side concerns specifically. Councilors disagreed on whether to take the Board’s $1.2 million health benefits surplus as indication that 0.3 percent would be adequate to cover fixed salary escalations.

       The Mill Rate will increase from last year’s 35.75 Mills to 36.59.

       Republicans have also pointed to $515,000 sitting in a non-lapsing surplus account established as part of budget negotiations last year, but both areas constitute nonrecurring funds, Democrats have countered.

       “It’s not fiscally responsible,” said Minority Leader Carol Anest. “That money might not be there [in later years].”

       “I guess I have a different philosophy on this,” said Majority Leader Beth DelBuono. “When health benefit savings come back on our side, they go into an account to offset costs. I hope the Board of Education does the same.”

       Anest introduced a series of motions starting with a bid to move the increase to the 2.49 percent-that failed 5-4.

       A subsequent motion-also to a 5-4 tally against-proposed a 1.79 percent. Democrats followed with a 1.29 percent, a .79 percent, a .54 percent, and then a .34 percent. All failed 5-4.

       Democratic Councilor Jim Marocchini asked how the town’s state imposed Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) would be impacted by the direction of surplus funds toward the cost of salaries.

       Finance Director Ann Harter said that that is a matter she will continue to take up with the town’s auditors.

       Board members and Democratic councilors have described the situation as a growing “donut hole” created as yearly baseline expenses go up without a stable stream of funding to cover them.

       Democrats also proposed moving funding from the school buildings CIP fund to the operating budget, but Republicans rejected it while saying that it would create holes in both areas, as Capital Improvements realm would be shorted, while the town’s yearly obligation to the Board’s general appropriation would be raised.

       The Council did, however, move $375,000 of a $1 million John Wallace wing reconfiguration CIP item toward maintenance projects previously left out of the Capital Improvements plan.

       Before the discussion and motions, Councilors fielded extensive public comment, spending the first hour or so reading letters from the public-both for and against additional money for the Board-before turning to the attendees that filled the seats before them.

       Many of the residents expressed that they saw additional funding for the district as an investment in long term growth for the community as a whole-in home values and economic development branding, among other areas-but others echoed the economic concerns voiced by Republican councilors.

       “You may have your reasons, but I’m willing to believe the board appropriations are not outrageous,” said town resident Chris DeFrancesco. “The school system is a crown jewel of our town. It should be nurtured-not neglected.”

       Jonas Roberts, a parent and teacher at Anna Reynolds Elementary, pointed to class sizes that have climbed to as many as 25 students since last year’s budget cycle. If the funding level impacts staffing, that will only be exacerbated further, he said.

       “A 0.3 percent will have direct detrimental effects on our students. I am here on behalf of those students,” Roberts said. “Regardless of what budget you pass, I invite each and every one of you to my classroom, and see what a class of 25 looks like.”

       Other speakers and letter writers pointed to residents-such as seniors-that live on fixed or limited incomes, calling for “belt tightening” in “uncertain economic times”.

       “We are not going to spend our way out of the predicament we are in,” wrote resident John Bachand. “Please ignore those that refuse to acknowledge the reality we are in.”

       Other residents urged both sides to work more collaboratively on the issue in the future-something the Board and Council tried to do this year, with joint goal setting meetings that were held in the fall.

       “This yearly game of budget chicken doesn’t do anyone in our town any good,” said town resident Michael Branda, who has children in the Newington Public Schools.

       During the weeks leading up to the Mill Rate adoption, the two bodies held negotiations over a Board proposed $1.8 million purchase of the St. Mary’s School-using Board surplus and health benefit credit funds-in order to alleviate the town of having to pay for swing space for the Town Hall renovation project.

       The Council opted to hold off on accepting the proposal, stating that the cost of renovating the building and clearing any contaminants on the site would still have to be determined, while Collins indicated that the purchase could potentially save the town $5.6 million on the project.