Council Eyes $1M, Wants More Info on Cuts

Following referendum defeat, Legislative Council has less than one week to act.

In an unprecedented move, the Legislative Council will return next fiscal year's budget request to the boards of Selectmen and Education for additional tinkering with a goal of stripping about $1 million or more from the request.

“We’re going to do whatever it is the council wants us to do,” First Selectman Pat Llodra told the council during a Wednesday meeting at the C. H. Booth Library. “It will mean that services will be eroding but we will do what we do.”

Interpreting Tuesday’s defeat of the budget referendum as a call from voters for lower taxes, all of the council members said they were in favor of reducing the proposed budget although they differed by how much.

“For our budget to be defeated by 300 votes in Newtown is pretty significant,” said Mary Ann Jacob who initiated a resolution that the majority of the council eventually passed.

The council held the meeting because under town rules, the council must revisit the budget proposal by Tuesday before sending it to a second referendum scheduled at the moment for May 17.

This year, rather than setting a firm bottom-line budget number as they have in the past, council members agreed to pass a nonbinding resolution asking the selectmen and education board to return to the council with more information on how $1,066,259 might be cut from the original $107 million budget request.

Under the passed resolution, the proposed cut would be distributed across town and schools budget proposals by a ratio of 30-percent and 70-percent respectively, unless the education and selectmen boards have a different recommendation.

Also under that scenario, the original school budget proposal is expected to decrease by about $746,000 and the original town budget request by about $320,000.

If those cuts were to be made, town property taxes would rise by only 1.5-percent rather than the 2.7 percent originally proposed, officials said. The resulting budget also would represent an annual increase of 1.25-percent rather than the originally proposed 2.25-percent.

Council members are to meet again Tuesday when they would cast their final votes on the exact amount.

Jacob's resolution was supported by many fellow council members, many of whom said they were in favor of making substantial cuts to the budget request in light of the referendum defeat.

"That is probably the right number," fellow council member James Belden said.

In addition to Jacob and Belden, Dan Amaral, Jan Andras, chairman Jeff Capeci, Gary Davis, George Ferguson, Kathy Fetchick, Kevin Fitzgerald and Ben Spragg voted in favor of the resolution. Bob Merola and Rich Woycik cast dissenting votes.

Earlier in the meeting, council member Woycik, supported by Merola and Amaral, attempted to propose a deeper cut of $1.4 million from the budget request but could not muster enough votes.

Based on the referendum defeat, Merola suggested the council consider a flat budget rather than any increase.

“I’m not sure we should assume an increase,” he said. “A zero percent increase is just as valid as anything we are talking about.”

After failing to garner enough votes for more sweeping cuts, Merola, Woycik and Amaral sought to redistribute the reduction between the town and schools budgets by a ratio of 20-percent to 80-percent rather than the proposed 30-70 split.

But that move also failed to garner enough votes.

The council also heard from Board of Finance members who differed in their recommendations, ranging from Joe Kearney, who proposed a total reduction of $955,000, to Jim Gaston, who suggested using a “chisel” to shave off only about $250,000.

Kearney said that in order to keep taxes unchanged, excluding pension and debt service payments, he calculated that the budget request would need to be reduced by $1.9 million.

In between those extremes was Marty Gersten, who said he would recommend an overall tax increase of no more than 1-percent and Harry Waterbury, who said he would advocate more than a “token” amount be removed from the budget but didn’t know what that amount should be.

Finance board chairman John Kortze read an e-mail from fellow board member Mike Portnoy, who could not attend the meeting, but appeared to support a zero percent increase.

Kortze for his part said, “I find myself somewhere in between Marty and Jim.”

Kortze suggested the council determine how much to remove from the budget request and then return the matter to the education and selectmen boards for further review. Those boards then would discuss in public where those reductions would come from and return with their recommendations to the council, which will make a final determination.

“You would be a lot better informed,” Kortze told the council.

Board of Education chairman Bill Hart, who has scheduled a special education board meeting for Monday, said he expected to receive some resistance from a few of his fellow board members on that tactic.

“I have a bit of a challenge, frankly, because I have a board that wants to maintain its independence,” he said.

Under state statute, the education board has the exclusive right to determine how to spend its budget once a final amount has been approved. Hart said the board would still maintain that right.

“Things may change between Monday and June 15…that is no different than any year,” Hart said. “That is the normal course of events, so I don’t have a problem. Do I have a problem with my board? Yes, I will.”

In a separate matter, the council also approved a stipulated agreement between Newtown, Brookfield and United Water regarding plans to extend the water line from the Pootatuck aquifer to the Greenridge section of Brookfield.

Correction: Joe Kearney supported a budget request reductioon of $955,000. He also said that in order to keep taxes nearly unchanged, $1.9 million would have to be removed from the budget proposal. An earlier version of this article was incorrect in describing his position.

Gianine Crowell May 04, 2011 at 01:07 PM
Susan - I appreciate your breakdown of taxes, but I think you are assuming that every taxpayer has the same tax obligation. Based on my household tax bill, if 30% is designated for the Town and 70% is for schools, then I am paying $11,200 toward the school budget, or $5600 per adult. This does not cover the cost to educate one child in the Newtown school system. And I do not send my two kids to NHS. The cost of private school tuition, books & laptop is equivalent to college tuition. So I am one of those people who is paying for both private school and Newtown schools, but that was a personal choice we made for our family. The cost of each private school exceeds the per pupil expenditure in Newtown. My daughter's school is more than twice that - but it is an excellent school which uses laptops in the classroom and class size ranges from 12 - 17 students. During snow days her math teacher instructed students online - and it was all interactive. While they do not pay for special ed, I'm sure their teachers are not underpaid. Perhaps private schools are able to decide more independently how they spend their tuition. All that aside, I still support Newtown schools because I believe it is for the greater good of everybody, especially the students. I am sorry you are having difficulties with the school. Is there room for improvement, and are there a few bad apples that should not be there? YES! But that does not negate the good things that are happening at all levels.
Douglas Brennan May 04, 2011 at 01:44 PM
Dear Ms. Crowell: I hope that you are not using the tuition paid for your students as an indicator of what it will cost to go to a top private college! From experience it now costs about $50,000 to $55,000 per year to send them to the IVY League or other top colleges. I have always said that if they get in you should do your part and send them. When they go you will be in the same position that you are in today. You will pay for them and you will pay through your CT taxes for those that go to UCONN, WestConn, Southern etc. You will also pay on your Federal taxes for Pell grants, defaulters on their student loans, etc. You get the idea. When they graduate, establish themselves as members of the community, and are accountable and responsible you will feel it was worth it. If you teach them to be discerning they will actually see the absurdity of where and how we spend money and wonder why you have left them hopelessly in debt as a nation by not requiring the same dedication and diligence that you required of them of our public sector employees and elected officials.
Robert Hennessey May 04, 2011 at 02:13 PM
The public sector employees included, would pertain to the municpal, as well as educational sides of our town's budget. There is room to eliminate administrative positions, some/many of which were unnecessary from the start (hello-nepotism), on both sides. Of course, our elected officials would have us believe only teaching positions can be cut. This is due to their continued failure to contain costs and present an acceptable budget annually.
Gianine Crowell May 04, 2011 at 04:47 PM
The combined cost of sending two children to two private high schools hovers around $50,000. I agree that if my children were fortunate enough to earn a spot at an ivy league school, I would send them. I also agree that we as a nation are leaving the next generation "hopelessly in debt", yet CT keeps electing tax and spend liberals at the state/federal level. I am hoping for different results in 2012. I'm not sure I understand your last sentence? Do you assume I do not expect diligence from public employees and elected officials? This budget cycle has been a collaborative effort between all boards, and without attending meetings as I have done in the past, I trust that the elected officials whom I support are doing their best to present a reasonable budget. Now that cuts need to be made, I would rather see a greater reduction on the town side. It is the town that has squandered millions of taxpayer dollars related to FFH. Still no accounting of exactly where and how much was spent. Without studying the school budget, I cannot say whether there is room for cuts or how much. I know that a large percentage of the budget comes from contracts. Contracts and tenure is an entirely different discussion, but I do believe it drives the increases in our budgets. With regard to my children's perception, we actually have political discussions at home and enjoy reading the Wall Street Journal - even my 16 year old. They understand the repercussions current economic policies.
Susan McGuinness Getzinger May 04, 2011 at 05:37 PM
Dear Ms. Crowell, No, I am not assuming that we all have the same tax obligation at all - I am just breaking down only the educational figure on Patch to the average taxpayer, to give an idea of the cost to the citizens. Many pay more, many pay less, but all the taxpayers pay and I believe we should know what we are paying for. 300 - accounting numver for "Special Services" should be itemized - we do not need to know family names, but if same account number keeps coming up, we may assume the cost is tied to the same case. I believe many good things are happening in Newtown schools, but when things are not going the way the law and policy state they should, we need to hold people in power accountable and correct the situation. I voted for more money for the schools. Now that I know how money is being spent in my cases at by the Administration, until it is fixed, I can't knowingly vote for waste of taxpayer dollars. I feel that it is a form of theft to take money and appropriate it towards going against policy and law.


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