Shelton board seeks details on school bus service budget

City of Shelton school buses parked in Shelton, Conn. June 7, 2018.

City of Shelton school buses parked in Shelton, Conn. June 7, 2018.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — The city is responsible for student transportation at a set cost of $3.15 million to be covered by the Board of Education.

But are schools getting the right bang for the buck?

That’s the question asked recently by Democrat Board of Apportionment and Taxation members at its recent workshop examining Mayor Mark Lauretti’s proposed 2021-22 budget.

His proposed $128.2 million spending plan is a $43,728 increase from the present year.

“The city has created a department … but they do not have detailed line items reflected in the budget,” A&T member Michelle Laubin said at the workshop. “That’s not OK.”

Laubin and her fellow Democrat A&T members questioned why there were not details on salaries and mechanical costs on the document they were handed, since those details are shown with all other city departments. The Shelton Student Transportation Services budget page simply states: for school transportation, $3.15 million.

Democrat A&T member Joe Knapik said knowing specific line-item details would allow for his board to make appropriate recommendations on the budget.

But SSTS Director Ken Nappi likened the deal between the city and the BOE to a personal services contract.

“When you hire someone to paint your house, you don’t ask how many painters they are going to use,” Nappi said at the workshop. The point, he said, is that you are paying to just get the job done.

According to the agreement between the city and school district, if transportation costs are more than $3.15 million, the city covers the extra amount. Conversely, if costs are less than $3.15 million, the extra money stays with the city.

Through the week ending April 30, city Finance Director Paul Hiller told the board the city has spent $1.485 million of the $3.15 million total. The amount does not include another budget allocation for parts that has a budget line of $100,000, Hiller said, where the city has spent $97,556 through April 22.

In the end, A&T did not receive the details during the workshop on where, exactly, the money was being spent and the board was unable to agree on a recommended budget, meaning Lauretti’s budget proposal simply passed to the Board of Aldermen unchanged.

Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission’s Tom Hennick said there is nothing in the FOI Act requiring the city to have an item-by-item breakdown of the school bus budget in its spending plan although the department would be required, under the FOI Act, to produce those records if they are asked for.

The contract between the city and Board of Education runs through 2021-22, and Board of Aldermen President John Anglace Jr. said “guarding” the specific cost details is essential to maintaining a competitive bidding edge.

“Student bus service is a highly competitive service overwhelmingly provided by the private sector,” Anglace said during the aldermen’s first budget workshop May 4. “As such, each company guards its data and its procedures to maintain a competitive bidding edge.

“That is one reason why the city budget contains limited data,” Anglace added.

“Transporting our most valuable commodity, this service receives exceptional oversight from the DMV,” Anglace said. “Inspections are rampant, driver regulations abound and unannounced visits are commonplace … all designed to ensure a safe service.”

At the time the city and school board reached an agreement over transportation costs, the school district had received one bus service bid for $4.4 million in the first year with provisions for subsequent annual increases, he said.

“It is obvious that this arrangement is saving Shelton taxpayers considerable dollars,” Anglace said, “and, given the possibility of a future need for the city to enter competitive bidding for this service, it is important that the complete cost details of this service not be divulged to our competitors thereby creating a competitive disadvantage for the city.”