‘Frustrated’ and ‘Disappointed’: School Board on Final $100,000 Reduction from Proposed Spending Increase

Saying the Town Council’s final, unexplained reduction of $100,000 from the district’s proposed spending increase for next fiscal year left them frustrated and disappointed, several Board of Education members on Monday night called for equal transparency and greater accountability from town government and municipal bodies. New Canaan also should look at its own budget process, school board members said, because by giving more power to appointed—rather than elected—officials, that process leaves Town Council members just one way to put their mark on the budget: reduce what’s been handed to them. Calling the Town Council’s move “unprecedented” in her 12 years on the Board of Ed, Alison Bedula described the move as a “basically random cut to either meet percentage or fulfill an obligation.”

Administrators and school board members worked diligently “to present a transparent line-by-line budget and to have discussions about it through the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance, and to have this thing really kind of ripped apart and looked at in detail which is a really necessary part of the process—to reach the Town Council and answer all their questions and then to get to the very end just to have $100,000 lopped off of the top of the budget, I just found that very disconcerting as a board member, very frustrating, quite frankly,” Bedula said at the Board of Ed meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School. “I think it’s very difficult as a board member for us to go through the process that we do, to the level of detail that we do, with the level of thoughtfulness that we do, and try to be as transparent as possible, which is asked for and delivered, which is what we all want, obviously to get to that point and have a random no pulled out of the sky, to say ‘We’re just going to take $100,000 off … you guys just have to find it some place.’ ”

Bedula and others at the meeting praised Interim Director of Finance and Operations Nancy Harris, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi and others for putting so much time and effort into a budget presentation that included new depths of detail, as well as the four councilmen who voted against the final $100,000 reduction in the district’s spending increase for next fiscal year: John Emert, John Engel, Kevin Moynihan and Tucker Murphy. (The 12-member Town Council voted 7-4 in favor of the reduction, with Penny Young absent.) Engel in particular during the Town Council’s April 1 meeting had said he was dissatisfied with a $100,000 reduction that lacked any supporting documentation or explanation.

Town Council Approves 2 Percent Increase to Operating Budget for Fiscal Year 2016

After some final trimming in some areas—notably, increases in police overtime and money for the schools—the Town Council on Wednesday voted to approve an operating budget of $141,211,088 for fiscal year 2016. The figure represents a 2 percent overall year-over-year increase in spending, including a 2.8 percent increase for the Board of Education. Calling this budget season the smoothest in recent memory—thanks in large part to the group’s leadership in Chairman Bill Walbert, Vice Chair Steve Karl and Secretary Kathleen Corbet, as well as Budget Director Jennifer Charneski and Finance Director Dawn Norton—councilmen also praised district officials for the granular level of insight they provided into spending on the schools. Even so, among themselves some debate emerged prior to the vote about a proposal to remove $100,000 from the district’s operating increase (which went through by a 7-4 vote). Calling it “intellectually unsatisfying” to have the funds removed arbitrarily with no explanation, particularly after so many months with multiple town bodies studying the budget, Councilman John Engel sought to preserve the school’s operating budget as it had been.

New Canaan Police To Get Body Cameras ‘Very Soon’

New Canaan Police soon will be put on body cameras as they start their shifts, the police chief said Wednesday. The department will purchase five body cameras to add to two models that it already owns, Police Chief Leon Krolikowski told the Town Council during his first budget presentation to the legislative body. “Lots of officers are asking for them,” Krolikowski said during the meeting, held in the Sturgess Room at the New Canaan Nature Center. “They [police officers] want a recording of the encounters we’re having with people, because frankly, most of the time, if not the vast majority of the time, our officers are making the right decisions and handling incidents well, so why not tape it and why not record it? There are some privacy concerns about going inside people’s houses versus outside in public that we have to figure out and make sense of.”

The New Canaan Police Department is to receive grant money from the state, Krolikowski said, and plans to use half of it for body cameras (the other half for distracted driving and education).

School Board Grappling With ‘Risky’ Cut To Health Insurance Reserve Fund

Just weeks after the town slashed the New Canaan Board of Education’s health insurance reserve account by $1.1 million for the fiscal 2015-2016 year, members of the board are now discussing how they would deal with a potential worst case scenario in which claims exceed the amount budgeted and eat into the reserves. During Monday’s Board of Education meeting at New Canaan High School, Dionna Carlson, who heads up the board’s educational resources sub-committee, said, “Through our work on the health insurance account we have identified a problem with our health insurance reserve as it relates to the health insurance reserve policy that was put into place in April 2014.”

That policy, crafted in cooperation with the Board of Selectmen, calls for the board to maintain 60% of the approximately $3 million health insurance reserve, known as the stop loss health corridor, as part of its budget, while the town maintains the other 40% in a special reserve on the town’s books. (To save money, the Town of New Canaan self insures as opposed to using full insurance.)

On top of this, the town maintains a special “incurred but not reported” (IBNR) reserve account, of about $1 million, that is used to cover claims that occurred in the fiscal year but which are not processed until after the fiscal year has ended. Members of the Board of Education and the school administration feel that the recent deep cut to the board’s reserve account puts the board at risk of defaulting on claims in the rare event that a high volume of claims draw down the health insurance budget and eat into the reserves. The town’s rationale for making the cut was basically that the board’s health insurance reserve fund is routinely overfunded at the end of each fiscal year.

DPW: ‘Brutal’ Winter Has Opened 700-Plus Potholes in New Canaan

New Canaan’s highway crews are repairing 700-plus potholes brought on by the wet, cold winter that officially ends at 6:45 p.m. Friday—a season that public works officials are calling “brutal.”

The Department of Public Works will need to secure an additional $200,000 to fix town roads damaged so severely that entire sections of asphalt need to be replaced, officials told the Town Council on Thursday night. And it isn’t just roads, the sidewalks downtown have heaved dramatically, such an area near Starbucks that’s moved four or five inches, while handicapped and pedestrian ramps also have lifted themselves, DPW Assistant Director Tiger Mann said. “We’ve had a lot of damage around town,” Mann said at the council’s regular meeting, held in the Sturgess Room at New Canaan Nature Center. “We do not feel the damage is done yet. We feel the frost is not out of ground yet and we have not got the wet weather yet.