Board of Finance to Keep 2 Percent Budget Increase as ‘Strong Guideline’ for Town Departments

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Members of the Board of Finance on Tuesday night discussed the effectiveness of an October memo instructing all departments to present their budget proposals for next fiscal year with no more than a 2 percent budget increase, especially in light of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi last week opened Board of Education budget talks with a request for a 3.5 percent increase.

Finance board member Colleen Baldwin said during the group’s regular meeting that while there were discussions before the memo was sent about making the 2 percent a “hard number,” the idea was eventually scrapped “for this very reason.”

Instead, she said that the number was “put out as a starting discussion” with a strong suggestion that the budgets should be presented with “no more than 2 percent.”

But member Thomas Schulte questioned whether the departments are taking the memo seriously enough, considering the financials challenges that the both the town and the state are facing in the coming years and urged the board to bring up these concerns at department meetings.

“We tried to do our best to share with them the concerns that we had,” he said at the meeting, held at Town Hall.

“I think that the world is very different. It is a more expensive one for people to pay their state and local taxes [in]…and we can’t ignore that, and I think [in terms of] real world budgeting, all of the departments need to be aware of that—whether they’re halfway or all the way through creating their budgets. In liaison meetings, we should try to avoid us having to hear that they need 17-and-a-half vehicles, three-and-a-half part-timers, and all the rest of it, and just come in and say, ‘We see some clouds building on the horizon and we are more concerned now than at the time of this memo’ and we should have a discussion about that.”

Finance board member Ann Murphy Carroll defended the Board of Education’s decision to request more than 2 percent, saying that town residents expect the school system to maintain its level of excellence.

“The flipside is that all of these departments provide a service,” she said. “They provide things that people in the town want and need. I liked the [memo’s] tone of putting it as, ‘See if you can pull this off,’ but I think it’s incumbent upon us to listen to people who develop their budgets.”

She continued: “People move to this town for certain services and they expect the schools [here] to do X, Y and Z. And the schools certainly in their approach say, ‘I’m here to make sure that put together a great school system, and this is what I think I need’ and it’s a dialogue back and forth. It kind of sets the tone for the discussion to listen to every department because they’re building the pace for what they have…I feel it’s better to have a dialogue, go through the budget, and then work with people on it.”

Schulte replied that the board has always been willing to listen to the departments and accommodate under “extraordinary circumstances,’ but the memo allows the board to ask departments to “deliver on their mission” using the resources and guidelines that they’re given.

In the case of the Board of Education, Baldwin pointed out that because its proposed budget is already over 2 percent in discretionary spending alone, the discussion should now encourage the department to “cut services somewhere—predominately within the Board of Ed—in order to get to that [2 percent].”

Todd Lavieri, elected at the meeting as finance board chairman, said that the Board of Education and other departments shouldn’t look at the guideline as a way to cut services, but instead they should be “looking at things a little differently.”

“For 20 years, think about what this town has done for our educational programming…the budget has gone from $50 million to $90 million,” Lavieri said. “We have great schools, great ratings, and it’s unbelievable, but our taxpayers have spent over $1 billion on our schools happily, and we do it because we know we get a great product for it. What we’re saying though is, ‘You know what? Maybe $90 million starts to feel like a lot for the same 4,000 students. Maybe there’s a way to find $800,000 out of that $90 million budget with no loss of service.”

Lavieri also suggested that there be a discussion within the board after the current budget season has ended to switch to a two-year budget season to give departments more time to work through their budget solutions.

After further discussion about whether the memo should be considered a “guideline” or “policy” and whether 2 percent should be considered the “absolute maximum,” the members agreed that the memo will stand as a “strong guideline” and that the board would like to see every department present a budget with a 2 percent increase or lower.

Members also agreed that they’d like to see departments present a “Plan B” that would have a zero percent increase. Baldwin, however, stressed that it’s not the Board of Finance’s job to tell departments what they should cut.

“We do not want to tell [the Board of Education] what to do,” Baldwin said. “We shouldn’t engage in that because then it creates an enormous amount of politics, and we need to be certain to avoid that because we’re not in the programming business. We’re not educators. I want to be careful that we’re not going back and forth on line items.”

During the meeting, Bob Spangler was elected vice chairman and Judy Neville as secretary.

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