NEW FAIRFIELD — Despite overwhelming public support for the spending plans, the Board of Finance slashed more than $2 million from the proposed 2023-24 municipal budgets last week.
During the board’s heavily attended, more than five-hour-long meeting, a motion was made to cut nearly $1.8 million from the proposed $40.7 million school operating budget and $300,000 from the proposed $12.8 million town operating budget.
To the disapproval of many who have urged the finance board to approve the budgets with minimal to no cuts, the motion passed 4-2, with members Kim Hanson, Thora Perkins, Mark Beninson and Claudia Willard voting in favor and Cheryl Reedy and board chair Wes Marsh voting in opposition.
Cutting nearly $1.8 million from the school operating budget is “huge,” Marsh said, and a $300,000 reduction in the Board of Selectmen’s operating budget will have a significant impact as well.
“People are going to lose jobs,” he said during the April 12 virtual meeting, which over 200 people attended. “I just think those are tremendous cuts.”
The Board of Education and Board of Selectmen were to attend a special Board of Finance meeting on April 26 to present how they will handle the cuts.
First Selectman Pat Del Monaco said the $300,000 cut to the Board of Selectmen budget will have a significant impact.
“They will have to come out of our operating budget and they will be fairly severe,” she said Monday of the cuts. “We don’t have a lot of extra in our operating budget, so this will affect services that our residents enjoy.”
Del Monaco said the Board of Selectmen will discuss the $300,000 cut during a special meeting Thursday.
“I don’t want to get out ahead of the Board of Selectmen on specifics, but as I have said publicly, we’re going to have to look again at regionalizing our dispatch center and we’re going to have to look at operations in our library and our senior center,” she said.
Though he couldn’t be reached for comment Monday on the impact of the nearly $1.8 million cut, Superintendent Kenneth Craw has said a major cut would “deny children the education they deserve and be tantamount to educational malpractice.”
“For every $500,000 we have to cut from the schools’ budget, we will have to cut six certified and two non-certified positions,” he said earlier this month. Cuts to teaching positions would “lead to larger class sizes, reduced course and program offerings and co-curricular offerings,” he said.
The New Fairfield Board of Finance’s efforts to minimize the town’s tax increase came despite pleas from residents to approve the budgets without cuts.
“At the last Board of Finance meeting, we had over 300 people on the call and many of them (said) they want to see minimal or no cuts to the Board of Ed and Board of Selectmen’s budgets,” resident Don Kellogg said. “What I don’t understand is with this overwhelming outcry … how you can just ignore it.”
An alternate plan
Before the vote, finance board member Reedy proposed a plan designed to not only lower the projected tax increase from 13.2 percent to 6.9 percent, but to also mitigate the budget increase “without creating new holes for next year.” But others on the finance board said it was not “conservative enough.”
Reedy’s plan called for cutting $585,000 from the Board of Education and $175,000 from the Board of Selectmen, using $970,000 in excess revenue from the current fiscal year to offset next year’s increase in the medical fund and to start rebuilding the town’s medical reserve fund, adding $250,000 to estimated non-tax revenue and using $1.5 million in bond premium in 2023-24 — as well as $1.54 million in 2024-25 — to smooth out the tax increase.
Reedy said her plan may not be what residents had called for, but she said it would help the town avoid future budget holes and also be fair to all New Fairfield residents — some of whom can’t afford a 13.2 percent tax increase.
“I’m sure people will be unhappy with parts of this (plan), but I feel like we have a job to do and we haven’t done it yet, and it’s time for us to do our job and put this out to the public,” she said. “We can deal with this. We just need to make the decision that we’re going to do it.”
Reedy’s plan looked at the upcoming fiscal year as well as the years ahead.
“We need to look at this over more than just one year. If you look at what we did last year, we created holes that we have to fill this year,” she said, adding that she regrets not making past tax increases larger.
If tax increases had reflected taxpayers’ approval of funding for the construction of two schools, an additional school resources officer and infrastructure maintenance, Reedy said the town might have avoided the need to fill holes.
“We on the Board of Finance have failed (to) let the tax increase reflect the fullness of what taxpayers are telling us that they want,” she said. “If you want these things, you have to be willing to pay for them.”
Despite appreciating its forward-looking approach, others on the finance board weren’t fully on board with Reedy’s proposal and called for further reductions.
The public expressed frustration with the board members’ responses to Reedy’s proposal.
“I’m floored, really and truly,” resident Amber Fidel said. “Cheryl came up with some really solid solutions and was nearly railroaded.”
Kellogg said Reedy’s plan might not have aligned with residents' calls for minimal to no cuts, “but it was reasonable and it was rational … and you guys just took a machete to it.”
The Board of Finance will have to do its final budget markup April 26, in order to get the 2023-24 budget out to voters, Marsh said. New Fairfield’s code of ordinances requires the annual town budget meeting to take place no later than the first Wednesday in May.