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.