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Sunday, May 26 News

New Milford cuts school budget and adds capital items

NEW MILFORD — A smaller school budget will head back to voters on June 15 after Town Council cut $300,000 at Thursday’s meeting, following the failed referendum earlier in the week.

The new amounts are $63 million for the schools, which is $200,000 more than the current year, and $39 million for the town.

If the new school budget is passed by residents, the school board will have the responsibility of figuring out where to make the cuts to meet the amount set by the council.

The town figure includes the same operating budget as the current year and what was included in the most recent referendum. It also tacks on about $1 million for capital nonrecurring items that are needed, but weren’t budgeted for in the last two proposals, including the property reassessment in 2020, oil tanks and roof replacements.

These items will be paid for using about two-thirds of the additional $1.5 million included for New Milford in the state budget recently adopted and signed by the governor. Those funds had been counted on in the most recent budget proposal as revenue toward town expenses.

But council members were skeptical that additional money would come or that it would be carried over to the next fiscal year and decided to use it for one-time items instead of offsetting operating expenses.

Councilman Paul Szymanski, who proposed the bulk of the new plan, included more than $600,000 for the revaluation, but other members said it increased the tax rate too much and instead decided to split the cost over two years. The revaluation is expected to cost more than $700,000, but only about $38,000 had been budgeted prior to Thursday’s meeting.

This budget translates to about a 3.3 percent tax increase, up from the 2.6 percent increase in the last budget.

The increase between referendums is largely due to the decision to use the additional state revenue for capital items, but it’s also due to the council’s decision to not use as much of the undesignated fund. The last proposal used about $492,000 from the fund, but the council decided to use $250,000 this time, which is the amount historically used.

This budget also includes about $220,000 in additional revenue for interest income.

The changes were made following comments from several residents, some of whom urged the council to listen to the people and cut the schools instead of the town, while some asked the schools not be level funded. Both budgets failed at referendum because voters rejected the school budget, which was kept at the same level. The town budget passed both times.

“I don’t see the will of the people being addressed at all,” said resident Rob Weinberg.

Councilwoman Lisa Hida said she received similar input from the 28 residents she called after the vote failed.

“The feedback was that the town has done their work, the BOE has not,” Hida said.

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Some of the schools’ biggest budget drivers this year were health insurance and special education costs, which are required.

Last time, Town Council reduced the town budget by $102,000. It funded half the requests for the Visiting Nurses Association, the fire department’s capital reserve and the Youth Agency — all of which were fully funded by the finance board before the first referendum.

Councilman Walter Bayer said he opposed cutting the schools and that he still disagreed with the town budget because of the cut to the fire capital. He voted for the same level this time around, though, because it was approved by voters last time.

“Imagine if we had to pay for a fire department, then we’d hear some hollering about tax increases,” he said.

Councilman Michael Nahom said he was concerned because they created a budget last time that compromised with the schools and it was rejected. He said the state cuts put the town in a difficult position because even with the same funding for the town and a less than 1 percent increase for the schools, people will still see their taxes go up.

“The budget we’re creating is not the best, but it’s the best alternative,” he said.

Several council members said it was clear residents didn’t support the additional $500,000 for the schools because the figure failed twice. They still called this budget a compromise because it included money for two of the schools’ fuel tank replacements and roof work at three of the schools.

Katrina Koerting|Reporter