RTM approves decreased budget and mill rate for 2018-19
During their annual budget meeting on May 14, members of the Representative Town Meeting approved a budget of $145,171,660 along with a reduced mill rate of 16.08 for the upcoming 2018-19 fiscal year. Town leaders credited this year’s stable budget, which decreased by less than one tenth of a percent, to the cooperative efforts of budget officials and department heads and the town’s ongoing commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Through several reports on Monday night, RTM Finance & Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis described the town’s budget process and the decision making that led to the overall decrease in spending. The town budget is separated into three major categories: the selectmen’s operating budget, the education operating budget and capital/non-recurring expenditures.
A reduction in capital expenses is the primary factor in the town’s reduced mill rate this year. During its review of the budget the Board of Finance decided to use bonds to pay for two education capital projects, the installation of a turf field at Darien High School and a roof replacement and skylight at Holmes School. Combined, the projects are expected to cost about $1.6 million. The Board of Finance felt the projects met the criteria for bonding due to their life expectancy of 10 and 20 years, respectively. Furthermore, budget officials noted the town’s decreasing debt service payments and strong credit rating as factors in the decision to bond those projects.
Last year’s capital request for $6.7 million included four items deferred from the 2016-17 fiscal year. These included the DHS cafeteria expansion, a town hall generator, a storage shed for DHS and a new truck for the Board of Education. This year’s capital request is down to $4.2 million.
The selectmen’s operating budget includes public services such as snow removal and trash pick up, emergency services from the police and fire departments, funding for the Darien Library and expenses for town hall employees and programs. This makes up about 30% of the overall budget, while the Board of Education budget occupies about two-thirds of spending.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson asked town department heads to aim for a stable budget with a zero percent increase in spending. While some departments did see budget increases due to new employees and other necessary expenses, Town Administrator Kate Buch and Finance Director Jennifer Charneski found opportunities to reduce spending in other areas. Their work helped the Board of Selectmen deliver an operating budget of $47,049,394, a slight decrease from the prior year.
“The great outcome of the budget, at least on the selectmen side, was due in large part to the mandate the Board of Selectmen gave to our staff to come with a zero percent increase,” Stevenson said on Monday. “Of course, we know that wasn’t possible for some departments, like public protection and public works, but many of our other departments did extraordinary work and actually came back with budgets that were a reduction from the previous year. So great credit to our hardworking staff, and Kate and Jenn who really drove that home.”
She continued, “We really are the envy of the state, I don’t know any other town that is proposing a budget with a mill rate decrease.”
During the RTM meeting on Monday, Stevenson said the town had implemented performance measures in the budget process this year that add more accountability to department spending. She said that next year the town could further expand its OpenGov budgeting software to provide a more interactive view of the process for the RTM and other elected officials.
The Board of Education budget, which represents the largest portion of the town’s spending, saw an increase of 2.34% this year, to a total of $98,122,266. Though the school district has found some criticism in the past for its rising budget, only a single member of the RTM objected to this year’s funding amount. RTM Education Committee Chairman Ann Reed said the committee was able to tour all of the district schools and found the Board of Education’s requests to be warranted. One member did oppose the education budget during the committee process, on the basis that school projects, like the turf field and Holmes School skylight, should not be bonded.
The 2018-19 budget will take effect on July 1, at which point the town will begin accepting tax payments at the reduced mill rate of 16.08.