State Budget Uncertainty Remains as Town Approaches Appropriation Date
WETHERSFIELD - Town Councilors from both parties are looking to reduce the overall budget increase to between 2 and 2.5 percent, as uncertainty regarding the state process remains.

       That was the consensus reached during Monday night’s budget workshop-a joint session with members of the Board of Education. Republican Councilor Mike Hurley was the first to throw out the 2 to 2.5 percent target, expressing a desire to focus not only on question marks regarding state aid revenue, but general expenses ahead of what promises to be tougher years to come.

       “This is one year,” Hurley said. “We know the state’s in a bad place. They’re gonna put some things in their budget that aren’t solid and have to come back to us.”

       Republican Councilors agreed, with Mike Rell echoing Hurley’s call for 2 to 2.5 percent, and Jodi Latina expressing a desire to come in flat.

       Democrats Tony Martino and Anthony Spinella also said that they’d like to come in within the 2 to 2.5 percent range.

       “Next year’s not going to be any easier,” said Mayor Paul Montinieri.

       So Town Manager Jeff Bridges presented a list of possible reductions that begin with a recommended $262,000 cut that would roll over $78,000 in current year health insurance funds, refinance $40,000 in debt, and hold off on equipment and vehicle replacements-among other line items.

       What the town is working to avoid is another $716,000 reduction that-if necessitated-would close the Nature Center and swimming pool, eliminate Sunday Library hours, and remove the middle school SRO, as well as shed a slew of part time staff positions.

       Bridges indicated that this tier of cuts is a last resort in the event that proposed expense shifts from the state to municipalities pass as proposed. The largest of those is a Governor requested third of teacher pension costs-projected to run Wethersfield for an additional $2.8 million.

       While state and local leaders have indicated that that is unlikely to come to fruition, the town should at least budget the $700,000 cost of the state shifting a quarter of the total to the towns-as has been discussed more recently-Bridges said during the meeting.

       Hurley questioned whether the town should include even that much, saying that he would expect some latitude from the state in regard to budget adjustments if that were to pass.

       “I think they’ll give us an option to change,” Hurley said. “They’re not going to let every town go down in flames. Every town that goes up for referendum [with that in the budget] is going to get voted down.”

       Wethersfield is still waiting on the status of legislative discussions regarding an extension to municipal charter mandated budget deadlines-an issue that was tabled in the Senate weeks ago. Montinieri indicated that he has asked State Representative Russ Morin to take the discussion to the House.

       Today is the last day the House can act on such a proposal, and the town’s adoption deadline is this coming Monday.

      

       “I think it’s important to get that flexibility,” Montinieri said over the phone last Wednesday. “Most of the state’s moving parts are unclear at this time.”

       The current overall budget proposal-presented by Town Manager Jeff Bridges a few weeks ago-sits at a 6.5 percent increase, but that’s based largely on the prospect of towns taking on the cost of pensions.

       Even with that taken out of the equation, the budget increase would sit at 3.7 percent if the town doesn’t pursue further reductions, Hurley said.

       Meanwhile, the Board of Education has-by Council request-presented three scenarios designed to represent a $500,000 budget reduction, a $1 million decrease from the requested total, and $1.5 million in cuts.

       Last week Board members and Superintendent of Schools Mike Emmett declined to get too specific, but Emmett indicated that his proposed 2.94 percent is baseline.

       “That maintains what we have,” Emmett said over the phone. “I’m not cutting things I hope to get, I’m cutting things I already have [at a level below the requested increase]. If you have to cut $1.5 million, you’re talking about positions.”

       “Anything hurts, but $1.5 million is catastrophic,” said Board Chair Bobbie Hughes Granato.

       The good news is, the district anticipates health insurance savings, as well as a little bit on fuel costs, Emmett said.

       Retirements could help as well, and the proposed teacher pension cost shift is far from a certainty, he said. When the Board issued non-renewal notices to 66 non-tenured teachers two weeks ago, they indicated that the move was a formality prompted by the possibility of staff reductions, while stating that they hope and expect to be able to rescind them.

       “The last thing I want to do is create an environment of fear based on the unknown,” Emmett said.

       The Council has discussed speaking with the unions about deferred pay increases has come up as a possible direction. At the Monday meeting, Bridges indicated that he was waiting to hear back from union representatives regarding that proposal.

       Montinieri stressed that such a move would not be pursued to change the overall pay increase over the course of the three year contracts, but to allocate them at different levels than agreed upon.

       Over the phone before Monday night’s meeting, Hurley questioned the long term benefits of “delaying the inevitable” when it comes to salary costs.

       Board members said that they have not yet approached union leadership from their side because they are waiting for a clearer scope of needed reductions through a specific number from the town.

       Montinieri told the Board that they’d have either a figure to shoot for or an extended budget deadline by today.

      
STORY BY MARK DIPAOLA   |  May 05 2017  |  COMMENTS?