Revenue Uncertainty Lingers after Local Budget Passage
WETHERSFIELD - The Town Council has passed a $101.7 million budget-a 2.9 percent increase-with language that allows it to lower the rate of other tax areas if the state statutory automobile Mill Rate moves from the current 32.0 to a proposed 37.0.

       The current adoption reflects the 32.0, but the Council took a 5 minute recess during deliberations so that Town Finance Director Mike O’Neil could draft new motion language to allow for the adjustment of that Mill Rate to align with whatever the state decides at the end of its own session.

       “Real” property rates would go down to stay within the $85 million portion of the budget slated to come from taxes, O’Neil said.

       The appropriation-passed 5-4, with dissenting Republicans expressing a desire for further reductions and “harder decision making” ahead of more difficult budget years to come-was without any of the $2.8 million in teacher pension costs that would be shifted to the towns if Governor Malloy has his way.

       Last Thursday, Council consensus was to remove a couple of budget options that would have included a line item for the event that 10 percent of the state’s teacher retirement costs are passed on to municipalities. Malloy’s original proposal called for a third of the total.

       In a phone conversation last Friday, State Representative Russ Morin confirmed the unlikelihood of municipalities taking any of it, as many legislators have expressed opposition to the shift.

       When the Council left the Thursday meeting, Bridges still needed to find $300,000 in cuts to get the number-originating as a 6.5 percent increase with the teacher pension costs factored in-to a budget inflation that falls between 3 and 3.5 percent.

       Republicans and Democratic Councilor Amy Bello expressed a desire to come in at the lower end of that spectrum-if not south of 3 percent-with Councilor Mike Hurley pointing to a 2.5 percent the Council had seemed to be leaning toward during a discussion held on the preceding Monday.

       Mayor Paul Montinieri said that the range reflects yearly budget increases over recent years.

       “I don’t find any increase normal,” Hurley said.

       At issue this past Monday was the Board of Education side of the budget-down $500,000 from the original request for a 2.9 percent increase.

       On Thursday, Montinieri reported that Council Democrats have asked the Board of Education to find $500,000 in reductions-one of, and the lowest, of three reduction levels discussed in previous meetings-without impacts to staff.

       “The deliberation of how we arrived at what I think is a sizable commitment without effecting class sizes and classroom teachers, I greatly appreciate,” Montinieri said. “I think the Board really understood the dilemma we faced, and I think the Board understands we might not be done, depending on what happens with the state.”

       While the teacher pensions is one question mark, there’s also state aid levels to keep an eye on. The state may not have its budget prepared until the end of June.

       Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the Board side resolution, accusing Democrats of negotiating with the Board without adequate input from members of the minority party, who were not at later meetings during which the Board was asked to pursue the then-tentative $500,000 reduction.

       “I thought it was disappointing the BOE budget was negotiated behind closed doors,” Hurley said.

       During Thursday’s workshop, Councilor Mike Rell called the $500,000 in Board cuts “low hanging fruit”. The other possible reduction levels were for $1 million and $1.5 million-the latter of which Board Chair Bobbie Hughes Granato referred to as “catastrophic” for a district working to retain teachers, and, subsequently, current class sizes.

       During the workshop Montinieri said that Democratic meetings with the Board did not lead them to a final number, and that the discussions were held in an effort to bring the Council as a whole tentative solutions to work with.

       “I get where you’re coming from, but it’s not really fair to attack us when we’re trying to come to a solution,” Montinieri said.

       On Monday, Deputy Mayor Steve Barry characterized the meetings as standard caucusing.

       “It’s leadership that leads to caucusing and sometimes agreements,” Barry said. “It wasn’t fair to call that a secret meeting. You know full well it’s done at the legislature. It’s done here. It’s a common way of how things get done.”

       Republican Councilor Mike Rell asked if the other two options were discussed in meetings with the Board. With staff reductions on program impacts off the table, where will the Board find the $500,000 reduction, Republicans asked.

       “I wanna know what’s not in there,” Barry said. “What’s not in there are programs. Teachers. We can’t tell the Board how to spend the money. We only have the power to give it. I wanted to have assurance that certain things would not be cut.”

       On the town side, the Council would also like to avoid layoffs. Part time staff positions were included in a $716,000 cut tier-along with the closing of the pool and Nature Center-but Bridges has indicated that the level is a last resort.

       “I think the sense is we don’t want to cut positions,” Montinieri said Thursday. “We’ll pay dearly in terms of services and reputation.”

       The Council had been hoping for a relief in the form of legislation-weeks ago the Senate tabled a discussion on whether to allow towns to stretch their respective Charter deadlines for budget passage-but as of Thursday, that had not come. So the budget will be appropriated tonight, with lingering question marks regarding the definite fate of Malloy’s teacher pension proposal, as well as state aid levels.

       “That troubles me,” Montinieri said. “I’d like to have a bill passed, but that’s not going to happen.”

       Morin implied that case precedent for towns to stretch the timeline by their own volition exists, but the Council is leaning toward an adoption tonight.

       “I think we have an obligation to honor the Charter,” Montinieri said. “We’re going to have to fly with a few unknowns. We’re relying on a reopener.”