The Legislative Council is sending to referendum an amended budget request that shaves half of a percent in increased taxes from what was originally proposed.
During a Thursday meeting at Newtown High School that was at times met with raucous calls from audience members who wanted more school money, the council voted to reduce $503,000 from the town budget while leaving education untouched.
Through a combination of proposed municipal cuts and found savings, which First Selectman Pat Llodra identified and recommended to the council during her presentation in the meeting, the measure would lower the tax increase proposed in the $104 million budget request to 2.4 percent.
Llodra said the town would be able to make do with those reductions, adding later in an interview that she wanted to do everything she could to make sure the second referendum succeeds.
An earlier version of the budget request calling for a 3 percent tax increase was defeated by referendum Tuesday. The revised budget request will be sent to a second referendum in about two weeks.
The council's vote, 11 to 0, came after several different failed amendments, including one that won bipartisan support, and proposed one fifth of the amount removed from municipal spending, or $100,000, be added to the education budget. In that scenario, taxes would have increased by 2.6 percent.
"It's not a lot but it's an olive branch," Republican George Ferguson said of the increased education spending. "It keeps us talking and working together."
That failed amendment, which garnered six votes or a majority of the council, was the first education-specific motion to win bipartisan support since the council started deliberations weeks ago. But the votes were not enough, according to council Chairman Jeff Capeci who said any action that proposes spending increases requires two-thirds of the 12-member council to agree.
Ferguson and fellow Republicans John Aurelia and Chris LaRocque as well as Independents James Belden, Gary Davis and Kevin Fitzgerald voted in favor of the amendment while Democrat Daniel Amaral and Capeci and fellow Republicans Jan Andras, Mary Ann Jacob and Benjamin Spragg voted against the measure. Republican Richard Woycik was absent from the meeting.
Spragg, the only dissenting member to speak on the amendment, said the school district was already benefiting from health insurance savings.
As part of the town's overall move to self-insurance and negotiations with a contractor, officials said they have lowered their cost by about half a million dollars more than previously identified. As a result, the town can expect to spend $125,000 less in insurance for municipal workers and $375,000 less for school employees, officials said.
While the savings identified on the municipal side will be removed from the town budget and contribute to tax relief, according to the measure the council voted on Thursday, the $375,000 in school side savings would remain intact and the Board of Education could spend it on services.
Spragg said that money, as well as other revenue that might come from increased state reimbursement of school costs, was enough of an "olive branch" to education supporters. The tax burden needed to be addressed, he said.
"We've done the olive branch with the 375,00 in health insurance," Spragg said. "We need to get to two-and-a-half percent tax increase."
Earlier in the meeting, Ferguson said he worried the council was cutting too much from the town budget unnecessarily.
"I'm just wondering if a smaller cut is the best way to go," he said.
Ever since $2.5 million was slashed from the original school request, education supporters have been jockeying to return part of it. About $1.3 million had been identified as costs that could be removed without affecting school services.
With the $375,000 in health insurance savings and another $50,000 the district might receive from the state in school reimbursement money, the shortfall between what the school district said it needed and the council was willing to budget has dwindled to about $800,000.
On Thursday, Davis, a member of the Independent Party of Newtown, tried to propose reducing $953,000 from the municipal budget request and adding $450,000 to the school side, but that amendment garnered votes from only the other two Independents.
Fitzgerald, another Independent, then proposed out of the $503,000 being reduced from municipal spending, $250,000 be added to education.
"I get it – I recognize we are in the minority," Fitzgerald said in making his case, telling the council that adding money back into education would change the ill will among school supporters who voted "no" in the referendum because they were unhappy with the budget process.
"I'm pretty comfortable it would change the dynamic of the next referendum," he said. "I ask that all members of the council take that into consideration."
But the amendment failed with some opposing council members saying the health insurance and other possible savings were enough.
"We're giving that to the Board of Education, we're not taking it away," Capeci said of the health insurance savings. "This is a reasonable budget."
While some people attended the meeting to tell the council they wanted tax relief or thanked members for not making further education cuts, more came to say they were frustrated with the council.
The dissention reached a crescendo near the end of the meeting when Capeci was speaking and people from the audience shouted out that he was wrong.
Sue Zimmerman, a resident who said she voted "no" in the first referendum because she wanted more education money, took aim at council members in her comments at the end of the meeting.
"You've created more animosity, you've created more divisions in this town," she said. "The fact that you can sit up there and say it's OK for kids to be in a class of 30, shame on you…The fight is on. I pray this budget goes down."
Editor's note: First Selectman Pat Llodra recommended that $503,000 be reduced from the municipal budget request. An earlier version of this story did not indicate that Llodra proposed those reductions for the council's consideration. Also, the final vote was 11 to 0. Finally Kevin Fitzgerald had put forward a proposal, which subsequently failed, to add $250,000 to the education budget from the $503,000 in town-side reductions. An earlier version of this story did not have right final vote and amount proposed by Fitzgerald.