Aldermen ponder school and city spending in Shelton budget process

The Board of Aldermen held its first workshop on the proposed 2014-15 city budget this week, contemplating how much to fund the school system and going over changes made earlier by the Board of Apportionment and Taxation (A&T).

The Board of Aldermen’s public hearing on the proposed 2014-15 budget will take place Wednesday, May 14 at 7 p.m. in the City Hall auditorium.

The hearing is a chance for members of the public to speak about the proposal, which will be voted on by aldermen later in May and take effect when the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

During the workshop, aldermanic President John F. Anglace Jr. said he had concerns about tapping further into the accumulated surplus fund to pay for operating expenses for the Board of Education (BOE), as recommended by A&T.

Anglace said it’s good fiscal practice to use surplus money for one-time expenses, such as road repairs or paying down debt, and not to supplement operating costs because it’s uncertain if surplus money will be available in future years when the operating costs will continue.

“It’s risky,” he said.

Is possible approach legal?

Alderman Jack Finn raised concerns about whether it was legal to keep funds on the city’s side of the budget that would be used for education-related expenses, as may be the case when it comes to a plan to eliminate pay-to-play fees for students.

Finn said the city appears to be telling the BOE if it gets rid of the unpopular pay-to-participate student fees for sports, clubs and certain other extracurricular activities, the city will provide more funds to the school system.

“This is simply not allowed by law,” said Finn, who has sent a letter to the city’s corporation counsel (city attorney) asking for a legal opinion on the matter.

Other aldermen said if the money to get rid of pay-to-play is put in the BOE budget, there shouldn’t be a problem.

School issues were a focus

Most discussion on the proposed school budget so far has focused on implementing full-day kindergarten, rising propane costs for school buses, eliminating pay-to-play, and paying for increased special education costs.

The Board of Aldermen budget workshop was no exception, although considerable time also was spent on the city side of the budget as the eight aldermen reviewed A&T’s recommendations for each municipal department.

Full-day kindergarten was mentioned only a few times, with some aldermen emphasizing the BOE decides how to spend its overall budget allocation — and that will include whether full-day K will happen.

A&T acted on the budget last week after it was proposed by Mayor Mark Lauretti in March.

Lauretti proposed 1.8% spending hike

Lauretti proposed a $117.9-million budget, which would involve a spending increase of $2.12 million (or 1.8%) from the current fiscal year — with $2 million of that total going to the BOE.

A&T made various changes to the city side of the budget and also recommended giving the BOE $770,000 more than recommended by Lauretti, according to discussion by aldermen at the workshop.

That figure appears to be slightly higher than the amount discussed by A&T last week, and represents a 4.2% school spending increase from the current fiscal year.

Most of the increase on top of Lauretti’s proposal would be paid by using surplus funds, based on A&T’s recommendation.

Anglace said the $2-million increase in the school budget supported by Lauretti is adequate.

Tax hike appears unlikely

The budgets presented by both Lauretti and A&T didn’t call for a tax hike, although there was some uncertainty by aldermen about whether A&T’s version accounted for all expenses.

Anglace said he didn’t understand some of the changes made by A&T. Alderman John P. Papa said A&T is supposed to provide more background on why it made the changes it did.

Finn, the only Democratic alderman, indicated A&T members had to make some decisions without input from city departments that didn’t send representatives to meetings.

Anglace was unhappy A&T never formally presented what the new rate would be with its budget changes.

But Finn said Lauretti has never provided A&T with the required details on the projected mill rate under his proposed budget, such as anticipated tax collection rate.

Pay-to-play and propane for school buses

For pay-to-play, the idea is to take $245,000 from the city’s “Youth Programs” budget line and have the BOE use it to end pay-to-play.

That would still leave $30,000 for Youth Programs, which appears to be adequate based on the spending levels of recent years.

The aldermen indicated they support this move.

With propane, the BOE had put $226,000 in its budget request for propane for next year, but then instead asked the city to take over that cost. A&T backed this idea.

But the $226,000 likely will not be enough to pay the propane bill, which is expected to be about twice as much as that in the current fiscal year, partly because of much higher propane prices.

Separately, the city has agreed to provide the money needed to pay for the propane cost overruns from this year.

Aldermen were uncertain if the A&T’s intentions for the $226,000 involved propane costs for the current fiscal year or for the next fiscal year budget.

Seeking acknowledgment

Anglace said the BOE is always quick to ask for more money when expenses are higher than expected, but then doesn’t acknowledge when the city assumes more education-related costs.

He said part of the reason the school budget is going up so much is because educators are receiving larger raises than municipal workers.

Aldermen also said it appears many more teachers will retire than had been indicated by the BOE, and this should generate new money for the school system.

They questioned the logic of offering incentives for teachers and school supervisors to retire early. “Why do we have to pay for all these people to retire?” asked Papa, noting this rarely happens in the private sector.