Republicans Launch Campaign with Call for Creative Cost Cutting
NEWINGTON - A call for “structural changes” on both the Town and Board of Education side of the budget marked the launch of the Republican municipal campaign last Sunday night-a “Meet and Greet” fundraiser event that packed the back room of the Market Square based Rooster Company.

       The event-attended by state and local officials-came just two weeks after Governor Malloy announced major reductions in Education Cost Sharing to take place in the absence of a state budget in October, and less than a week after incumbent Mayor Roy Zartarian joined municipal leaders in South Windsor to rally against what would be an executive order.

       “We read the writing on the wall as far as state aid is concerned,” said current Majority Leader Beth DelBuono in a phone conversation the next day. “We’ve kept budgets lean, and we have to find a way to keep providing what we already are with less.”

       Council Republicans frequently cited lingering uncertainty regarding the level of state aid in justifying budget decisions-particularly when it came to controversial low appropriation increases on the school Board side-though DelBuono admits that the level of reductions proposed by the Governor took even them by surprise.

       Newington would lose $11.6 million in education aid if that came to pass, although it’s widely believed that the legislature will have a state budget by then. Democratic Mayoral candidate Terry Borjeson expressed that sentiment when reached the week prior, but echoed Zartarian’s stating that the proposal would be “devastating” to the town if it were enacted.

       Borjeson maintained his stance on education funding, which he and fellow Democratic candidates feel has not been adequate over the past two cycles-the latest of which yielded a 0.3 percent increase for the Board. At the center of the controversy are the high school STEM academies and the town’s $2 million investment, as well as potential added costs in the way of lost project reimbursement and magnet school tuition payments.

       “We wanted to get those STEM academies open,” DelBuono said. “We tried to make an arrangement to do so, but unfortunately that didn’t work out.”

       The arrangement was a proposed Memorandum of Understanding that would have had the Board use projected health benefit surplus money to hire STEM teachers and cover overages in the cost of providing state mandated special education services, with the Council offering to cover any shortfall at the Town Charter midyear transfer point. But a legal opinion from Board attorney Tom Mooney advised against accepting the agreement, stating that the Board is prohibited by state law from operating using funds it does not yet have.

       But after the launch event, DelBuono expressed that she had wished the Board could have found money for the positions anyway.

       “If you look at the Board of Education, they had a $71 million budget,” she said. “And when you say that money wasn’t there, it’s hard for me to swallow.”

       The Board has asked for a little more than a 3 percent increase, but Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins had said that he hoped for at least 2.49 percent-a stated baseline. That means a good portion of it was composed of contractually fixed salary increases-for teachers, but also for noncertified staff such as custodians and maintenance employees that the Board shares with the town, which negotiates the rate of inflation, Collins said.

       During reductions made to close the gap between the 2.49 percent and the Council approved 0.3 percent, the Board opted to hold off on the STEM positions in order to avoid laying off more teachers. The process saw four instructional staffers let go of.

       Board candidate Jeremy Whetzel, the head of Vernon Public Schools’ IT employees union, lamented the layoffs-as well as the previous year’s losses that cost the district its gifted student program-while expressing intentions to prioritize funding around retaining staff.

       That would include any surpluses, Whetzel said. Collins has expressed reluctance in that regard, stating that during normal times, using nonrecurring credits would not be ideal for covering yearly salary costs.

       Whetzel said that it would be worth it to use such funds to keep teachers on board-even if it was just for a year.

       But the district actually did-last year, when the Board turned to funding retained through a newly established non-lapsing surplus account to avert having to lay off 14 teachers. Doing so created yearly expenses that exceed the Board’s baseline budget, which means that it will start next year in deficit, Collins has said.

       That, combined with the special education overages will bring the “hole” close to 2.5 percent, unless an expected health benefits credit comes in as projected in October, Collins said.

       With the state budget still a large factor of uncertainty, more belt tightening is on the horizon, Zartarian said.

       To that end, his envisioned “structural changes” deal primarily with seeking opportunities for consolidation-such as between the Town and Board. He hasn’t left inter-municipal cost sharing initiatives off the table either.

       Pursuing shared services was a staple of the Republican campaign two years ago, but it’s the direction the town and Board have been moving in for quite some time. Facility management, paving, and radio system functions-among several other areas-have already been combined, and the two sides have been exploring similar opportunities for IT and Human Resources, according to the Newington Public Schools website-based Board of Educations Shared Services update.

       But DelBuono appeared optimistic about the possibilities in IT, among other areas.

       “While I understand that those are both very different ways of doing business, I think that over time, we can find a way to work together toward some efficiencies,” DelBuono said.

       She said that any consolidation would not entail reducing staff, except through attrition.

       While Republicans have stressed tight budgeting over the past two years, the town still saw a more than 2.4 percent Mill Rate increase this year, due mainly to a 0.19 percent reduction to the Grand List-driven primarily by a change of ownership at the Hartford Hospital property.

       Candidates from both parties have placed emphasis on fostering economic development, while noting that the town is also short on open space. Striking the balance, DelBuono said, may come down to how well the town can redevelop existing properties.