FY 20/21: Board of Finance approves reduced mill rate after budget reductions
On Thursday night, the Board of Finance voted to approve a total budget of $147,862,069 for town and education combined, with a reduction in mill rate from 16.47 to 16.36 and flat tax levy of $138mm for fiscal year 2020/21.
For the Board of Education, the reductions to its original approved budget total $1.24 million. On the town side, that budget was reduced by $1.17 million.
The Board of Finance originally recommended to the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education to discuss modifications in their originally proposed budgets to get to two different scenarios: A flat mill rate increase and a flat total dollar tax levy.
The vote followed an impassioned discussion with Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley and the Board of Education over what the impact of an additional reduction of $557,500 imposed by the Board of Finance would be.
Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky invited First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and her board, Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman, her board and Addley for working group discussions on their respective budgets before the vote.
The meeting was held mostly virtually, with only Zagrodzky, Stevenson, Addley and Ochman socially distanced in person in Town Hall’s Room 206.
Board of Education background
On Tuesday night, the Board of Finance discussed the reductions already put forward by the Board of Ed, including approximately $223,000 in capital expenditures and $468,101 by revisiting line items on the operating side.
The Board of Finance discussed whether to keep the Board of Ed cuts as presented or to add to them. One aspect of the discussion is whether the Board of Ed would get to offset their increase by keeping the money left over from the current years’ budget, approximately $900,000, in a “non-lapsing” account.
The board discussed how much, if any, it should ask the Board of Ed to additionally cut. While some members supported nearly an additional $1 million, the finance board ultimately voted to ask the Board of Education to further reduce its budget increase request by $557,000.
The Board of Finance has consistently said it does not intend for these cuts to affect programming or students directly. The Board of Education met later Tuesday night and had a discussion about the additional cut. During that meeting, Addley told the board he felt this additional cut would impact programming.
“These are decisions I don’t want to make, to be honest with you,” Addley said.
“To get down to that, this is what I’d be recommending, administratively — we will be touching the area, up and down the system, of intramurals and students’ interns that work in the school. They provide a level of stability in substitute teaching, and sometimes it prevents us pulling math and English specialists,” he added.
Also affected, according to Addley, could be Darien High School’s talented and gifted program. The library at the middle school could be changed as to the number of librarians, freshman sports or another aspect of sports, and if the number went higher, it could impact third grade strings.
Board of Ed member John Sini said he felt the board could go back to square one with the originally passed budget and reopen items that had not been unanimously supported.
Several other board members suggested the Board of Ed ask the Board of Finance to talk again before the final vote Thursday. They said since the Board of Finance had said they didn’t intend the cuts to impact students and programming, and Addley said the additional cut would, there appeared to be a “disconnect.”
The invite to the Thursday night meeting was a result of that request.
Board of Ed discussion with Board of Finance
Before the discussion began, Zagrodzky gave opening comments outlining the breakdown of the proposed reduction by the finance board.
· $223,750 in capital expenditure, mostly small items that we felt could be reasonably deferred a year.
· $468,101 in operating expenses. The administration identified a variety of reductions. None of them appear to materially impact the education of students.
· $557,500 in a general cut. To help us meet our target of a flat tax levy, we cut an additional amount of $557,500 from the BOE budget.
Zagrodzky referred to a list that had been reportedly used by the Board of Finance to conclude that the $557,500 would not impact students and programming. Because the Board of Finance does not have control over specific line items in the Board of Ed budget, just the town side, some questioned a reference to a list of items at Tuesday’s meeting.
“It is true that we also looked at some specific operating expenses, the list of which had been widely circulated. The reason was to confirm in our minds that this additional cut could be made without materially impacting the education of students,” Zagrodzky said.
However, he added that those items were not relied upon for the Board of Finance to add that reduction, and “we are not asking that they be cut.”
“But having done our work, we think a reasonable person can very comfortably conclude that this $557,500 cut does not need to materially damage Darien schools,” Zagrodzky said.
He also emphasized the additional cut was not a 10 percent or a 1 percent cut, it was a half percent.
“In my opinion, there is no government budget, no corporate budget, no family budget, no school budget, no budget anywhere, that cannot handle a 0.5% cut,” Zagrodzky said.
Schools Superintendent Alan Addley told the Board of Finance he continued to disagree.
“I appreciate your comment that you don’t want to materially impact education. That’s in the eye of the beholder,” Addley said.
He also emphasized that the original budget that the administration presented had been lean in the first place.
Addley also asked the board to reconsider allowing the Board of Education to retain their non-lapsing account of $880,000. The Board of Finance previously discussed Tuesday but decided not to set the precedent of establishing such accounts. Any surplus will instead go to Fund Balance, the Town’s main reserve fund.
Addley said in his experience many districts operate with a non-lapsing account for non-recurring expenses and the system works.
Board of Finance member Jim Palen pointed out that if an expense comes up, the Board of Ed could go through the regular appropriation process, which Addley said in his experience, doesn’t work.
“It gets cumbersome,” he said.
Ochman said that in order to take another look at the budget, it needs to happen through the lens of the administration who leads the school system.
“We need to bring forward his recommendations which he currently thinks will materially affect education,” she said.
Addley said that there was nothing on his list of recommendations right now that would change by going back to look at the budget but he’d need to work with the board.
Board of Ed member John Sini said that as of Thursday afternoon in Board of Ed working discussions, Ochman had said the Board of Ed had taken no other position on the budget than to support the original one.
“We haven’t opened that budget back up since February,” he said.
He said that budget was passed before COVID-19 was even remotely a factor.
“You are looking at this budget from the top down,” Sini told the Board of Finance, adding that the Board of Ed needs to do a look from the bottom up.
Zagrodzky said the Board of Finance planned to put the cut in place at Thursday’s meeting.
He directed the board to then go back and “see if you can do this without impacting students.”
He said if the board went back and made a “serious effort,” and still could not make the cut work without impacting students, the boards could address whether a funding request was necessary that time. But Zagrodzky said he owed it to taxpayers to show that the effort had been made.
Addley reiterated that just because “you say it will have no impact doesn’t make it so. Practically it does. Program-wise it does.”
Board of Selectmen discussion with Board of Finance
Last Tuesday, the Board of Selectmen discussed the cuts to their budget. First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said that the changes to the town budget brought it down further than what had been requested in cuts by the Board of Finance. She additionally said the selectmen and the Board of Finance had received an email request from Darien Police Chief Don Anderson and Police Commissioner Kim Huffard, asking for the civilian dispatchers to be reinstated.
Cuts on the Board of Selectmen said included $427,969 for the operating budget and $745,561 for the capital side.
Stevenson said she would support asking the Board of Finance to reinstate the $310,000 for the dispatchers given it still kept the town side of the budget’s number on target to keep the mill rate flat. Her board voted 3/2 to ask the finance board to reinstate it, with some members concerned about the appearances of adding headcount.
At Thursday night’s meeting, Stevenson acknowledged the Board of Finance was unlikely to reinstate the deferment of adding new paid positions. She also said, in working weekly with her WestCOG colleagues, that most of the towns are also attempting to manage a flat mill rate and some are even looking for a reduction.
“There is unanimous concern among my colleagues that next year’s budget may be even more difficult than this one. I share this so you know that Darien is not an outlier in these budget-cutting efforts,” she said.
Stevenson said not only had the selectmen met the Board of Finance’s mandates, they in fact, exceeded them “which gives you flexibility as you deliberate final deferrals and set the new mill rate this evening.”
She said while understood the Board of Finance would likely defer the funding for “finalizing our now 10-years-in-the-planning civilian dispatch recommendation as it seems clear from your deliberations that adding FTE’s in the current environment is not defensible.”
“We are unanimous in our support for the plan in general and the flexibility it gives Chief Anderson and his leadership team to more efficiently and effectively deploy sworn officers for the myriad of duties required of them,” she said.
Stevenson added that until the COVID-19 crisis is over and the governor’s restrictions are lifted, the police are responsible for enforcing the “now 41 Executive Orders.”
“As we begin to reopen on May 20, we may face unknown challenges with Executive Order enforcement. I respectfully ask that you extend to the Board of Selectmen and Darien Police Department, as you have the Darien Library and Board of Education, the ability to come back to you mid-budget cycle to seek appropriations for critical unmet law enforcement or other needs,” she said.
Before the board voted, Zagrodzky said he recognizes it’s a difficult situation that everyone is in “and I mean everybody.”
He added that he felt Addley had been sincere in his approach and believed he had in fact produced a lean original budget.
Zagrodzky also said that in both the Board of Ed and the Board of Selectmen’s case, if there’s something “we’ve missed, or new, particularly for our police” that the board will convene to discuss.
“This isn’t about cutting services or damaging town assets,” he said.
The board voted unanimously to approve. The next move for the budget is to go to the Representative Town Meeting on June 8.
Last month, neighboring New Canaan cut their $82.2 million school budget by $1.14 million. Westport also cut $1.3 million from its $132.7 million school budget. Greeewnich also recently cut $3 million from its school budget to pass a $448 million budget. A similar budget reduction debate for Ridgefield schools is currently ongoing.