Op-Ed: Something’s Gone Askew in Town Budget Talks


Town Hall in New Canaan. Credit: Michael Dinan

Something seems to be askew in this year’s deliberations over the town budget. 

The budget process began in November 2018, when the Board of Finance unanimously adopted “Budget Guidelines for Fiscal Year 2019-2020.” The BOF analysis was thoughtful, thorough, and conservative. It determined that a $3 million (2 percent) cap on spending growth would protect the town financially while continuing services at levels citizens demand. 

Meeting the guidelines became a consensus goal for Town managers and school leaders. The guidelines were the centerpiece of an offsite budget meeting of all the key stakeholders on Nov. 17. Town Council Chair John Engel cited them in December when he challenged the Board of Education “to present a budget within the Board of Finance guidance.”

The Board of Education met that challenge. Their budget’s share of the Town-wide operating budget would be up only 2.03 percent, one of the lowest requests among comparable school districts. Town-wide results would be even better. In the Board of Selectmen’s town-wide budget announced on Jan. 30, expenses would increase just .16 percent, the lowest in 10 years. 

It was after these remarkable numbers were announced that the budget process seemed to go askew. 

Rather than celebrate success, some town leaders decided that, in hindsight, the guidelines were too permissive and that satisfying them would be insufficient. A chorus has formed to demand further spending reductions of up to $1.5 million from the Board of Education alone. 

What happened that would justify moving the goal line so late in the game?

Certainly, we’re all concerned about costs being shifted to the town from the state, but our understanding of the scope of these costs isn’t much different than it was in November. Once the impact is known, there’s good reason to believe that the Town’s financial reserves will be more than adequate to absorb it. 

We now know the impact of the town’s real estate revaluation, but the specifics wouldn’t have affected the BOF guidance, which commits to prudently managing property taxes “irrespective of where the mill rate might settle on a purely mathematical basis as a result of the revaluation.”

What we do know is that a concerted and fruitful effort has been made to achieve consensus and collaboration between the Board of Education and the Town regarding the budget. Wisely, it was assumed that we could achieve better results by acting in a spirit of partnership and trust.  

If we disavow this year’s Board of Finance budget guidance, what credibility should we expect next year’s guidance to command?

The Board of Finance will hold a public hearing tonight on the 2019-2020 Town Budget. The Town Council’s public hearing is on April 2. 

Tom Butterworth serves on the Town Council, but the views above are his alone.

9 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Something’s Gone Askew in Town Budget Talks

  1. Tom — as you know there is a $2.5 million expense line in
    the budget that needs to be addressed — could be cut in half or
    or done away with (a $2.5 million saving on top of what they
    gave the town ) should we not seek this savings ??? As I promised
    I have kept it out of the public domain for now — hopeful that they
    would make the savings on their own — but I am sure the taxpayers would not be pleased with the story

  2. Instead of criticizing town leaders who look for further reductions, they should be commended for wanting to continue to try and bend the cost curve. To suggest otherwise shows a tone deafness to the current fiscal landscape both locally and statewide. When the 2019 / 2020 budget deliberations started the results of the reevaluation were not known. We now know that taxable real estate in New Canaan is down by 7%. The budget put forth this year shows the lowest increase in 10 years as well it should . Property values are down. With property tax deduction now capped at $10,000, most New Canaan property owners will be seeing an increase in their federal tax liability. The BOF has done right by property owners for this year but why stop there? As I understand it, part of the savings from this year came from a one time reduction in debt service of $1 million dollars. This was an anomaly that goes away next year. Why wait to find ways to offset what we know will increase next next year? Bend the cost curve now !

  3. I agree with everything stated in Tom Butterworth’s Op-Ed. Thank you, TB, for putting your neck out for all NCPS students, parents, faculty/staff and administrators. Support is needed to fully fund the proposed school budget.

    • Just the same thank you to many other town officials for putting their neck out for tax payers. A fiscally sound budget does not convey a lack of support for the school system. More is not always better. If young families stop buying in New Canaan because we’re no longer competitive as compared to other towns that would be bad for the school system .

      • Respectfully, the BOE delivered a budget that was in line with the guidance provided by the town bodies. I would assume those town bodies were aiming to put forth a fiscally sound budget when they gave the directive. The BOE did not go astray.

        • The BOE should be commended but just because they delivered a budget within guidance it should not be rubber stamped by the Board of Finance
          or Town Council. This is essentially what happened in past, to tax payers detriment.

  4. Cost cutting in New Canaan is prudent and should be encouraged – As New Canaan has a reduction in people in the town – all costs need to contract significantly as the high quality of life and low cost basis are, in my belief, one of the main reasons real estate prices stay high and New Canaan evolved into a first tier suburb. As this formula changes, we will be paying hard taxes on property and soft taxes via continued price declines in homes and population lost. This spiral is hard to reverse.
    As a millennial who moved to New Canaan and loves the town, the formula of low taxes and investment in quality of life is good – but at the moment we must cut spending for the good of us all. I appreciate the funding school need, but it might make sense to charge a use fee per program to fund needed, extraneous programs.

    I am concerned people will flee to lower cost CT suburbs such as Greenwich or Darien to run away from the taxes because there is some point where it is cheaper to move then pay to live.

  5. To anyone who has bought into the false premise that more spending per student leads to better student performance in Connecticut please read this short report from the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research of Connecticut: https://www.cga.ct.gov/2004/rpt/2004-R-0005.htm

    To anyone who still buys into that premise even after reading the report, know that New Canaan spends roughly 10% more than the average of neighboring towns when incorporating our BOE debt and making very reasonable assumptions about their BOE debt.

    When will our town bodies show some backbone and curb the inexorable rise in BOE spending? It’s like Waiting for Godot.

    If people want more analysis on town spending (we have the highest debt per resident and second highest spending per resident out of 169 towns/cities in the State) feel free to email me at jdb435@nyu.edu.

    • I totally agree with you – We have a declining population and school population but spending doesn’t decrease. Also to your point we can still get great results with less spending.

      It is time the government makes structural changes to the cost basis instead of just asking for more revenue streams.

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