This year’s budget presents a great challenge for the Boards of Selectmen, Education and Finance. Three major events occurred this year that put unusual pressure on the annual budget process. First, the town’s grand list saw no increase for the first time in years due to Eversource reducing the valuation on its equipment. As the town’s largest taxpayer, the loss in revenue offset normal increases in the grand list. Secondly, the Governor’s budget proposes a reduction of $220,000 from what the Town budgeted in State grants for the current fiscal year. Lastly, under the Governor’s proposed budget, the state is attempting to have towns take on a portion of the underfunded teachers pension fund. Suffield would be expected to fund nearly $1.9 million. Despite these changes, the Board of Finance (BOF) voted to keep the overall increase in property taxes to 2.4% for a preliminary $58 million budget.
The Board of Selectmen (BOS) presented a $15.1 million budget with a $93,000 (0.6%) increase over last year. The BOF has since cut the increase to $18,00 (0.1%). They reviewed the last five years of expenditures from every account in the town’s operating budget. This resulted in a $150,000 decrease to the combined department heads’ proposed budgets. These adjustments were deemed necessary in light of the fact that the Town is in negotiation with every town union (including Police, Fire, Library, Dispatch and Town Hall; Highway and WPCA expire on June 30) and healthcare benefits are estimated to increase 15% next year.
The BOS left some cushion in the departmental budgets for minimal unanticipated expenses. Each year the budget includes a contingency fund for unexpected expenses which must be approved by the Boards of Selectmen and Finance. This year’s budget includes funding for the assessor to perform a revaluation. This is an unfunded State mandate which must be performed every five years. This will cost $130,000 after Town management explored doing some of the work in-house at a savings of $100,000.
In the area of municipal staffing, the overall salaries paid to the Town’s executive group resulted in a decrease of 0.67%. Salary increases were based on analyzing data from similar towns. Employees in the executive group were evaluated based on service to customers and management of their staff and budgets. The elimination of the full-time Director of Youth Services position and creation of a new part-time Youth Services Coordinator resulted in an annual savings of approximately $30,000. The BOS has proposed an increase of one day of administrative service in the First Selectman’s Office to focus on providing more timely and frequent communications on the Town website, Facebook page and other media outlets. They have also proposed a modest increase in the hours and pay rate for a vacant library position to address needs in technology and reference/teen librarian services.
Despite the reduction in grants, there are a few legislative proposals that may favorably impact the overall budget. These include allowing municipalities to post legal notices on their website instead of in newspapers and increasing thresholds for prevailing wages resulting in savings on capital projects.
The Board of Education’s (BOE) proposed budget of $34.8 million reflects a 1.8% increase over this year. The BOF reduced the budget by $300,000 for a 0.9% increase. This is primarily due to higher contractual salaries and increased health care expenses. Based upon a study last fall by Milone & MacBroom (available at www.suffield.org) the town’s middle and high school enrollment is projected to decline over the next five years. Also, we have a lower than expected student count enrolled for kindergarten next year. The BOE studied enrollment, class size, teacher data, and course offerings last spring and again with revised numbers in the fall. They confirmed that potential operating efficiencies can be realized while maintaining the school’s District Improvement Plan. It is the BOE’s expectation that any staff reductions will continue through attrition.
Superintendent of Schools, Karen Berasi, stated: “We will continue to focus on proven effective practices such as: highly qualified teachers, teacher-student relationships, intervention programming, teachers working together, classroom discussions, explicit success criteria, and clear student feedback.”
The relatively modest increase in both the BOE and BOS budgets did not include the impact of the nearly $1.9 million teachers’ pension expense as proposed in the Governor’s budget. While it is likely that this will not be approved, the BOF must build a budget to reflect its impact. If the full cost is not incurred, we anticipate some level of reduced income from the State given its budgetary issues. It is the desire of the BOF to keep property tax increases in line with inflation. Without further cuts to the Selectmen and Education budgets, most of this reduction will come from a $1.6 million cut in capital expenditures to $2.5 million. In past years net capital funding has averaged approximately $3.0 million. The concern is that Suffield not fall further behind in maintaining its facilities and providing the necessary services to its citizens. In the event the Town does not need to fund the pension expense this year, the BOF would likely restore some funding to the capital budget. The Town Meeting on the final budget will be on May 10 at Suffield High School at 7 p.m.