April 2014 Archives

Last week, the Tolland Town Council approved our 2014-2015 budget by a vote of 6-1. Now it’s up to Tolland’s voters to decide if it’s the right budget for us. As I said that night, I am suitably impressed with the process used this year to arrive at our budget, and I am fully in support of it.

So… why? After all, it contains a 2.849% increase in taxes, and any increase in taxes is bad. Even I have to agree with that.

But the big, hairy problem is that all costs are rising. I’m sure you’ve felt the squeeze at the pumps and in the checkout lines, with each paycheck and its increased insurance premiums—in just about every facet of life, you’re paying more for the same. (Or even for less.)

The town has felt the squeeze, too, and since the crash of 2008, previous Town Councils have been doing their best to keep tax increases to the absolute, barest of minima, in the hopes that things would get better. While the average tax increase over the past five years has been only about 0.5% per year, consumer prices have been increasing by 1.6% per year. You can see where this might be a problem.

In order to keep costs low, or at least constant, past councils have done some superb work in controlling costs. But they’ve had to delay maintenances, cut town staff (by nearly 10%!) and basically bet that the economy would recover in a meaningful way sooner than later. When, or if, the economy made its recovery, the Town could catch up on these things.

Unfortunately, six years later, while the rest of the nation seems to be in a minor recovery at best, Connecticut isn’t making much, if any, progress at all, and these delays cannot be tolerated anymore. We have no choice at this point but to respond to the needs of the schools and the town. New mandates from the state and federal governments are squeezing us even more, there are few savings left to be found, and things are beginning to crack—if they’re not broken already.

Simply: we have no choice but to increase the budgets of both the town and the school system.

In order to increase these budgets, income must increase, and income and outflows must balance. In a normal economy, property values increase, tax revenue increases, and there’s enough income to cover the increasing expenses of the town and school system. This year? Not so much. Our property values are flat, there have been few increases in the grand list, and yet prices rise all the same. We’re in between the proverbial rock and hard place, and the result is a requirement to increase taxes.

So, if a tax increase is necessary, how much do we increase them by? Do we increase them the smallest amount possible, straining every resource in town to do more with less, possibly breaking things which are expensive to fix later on? Do we increase them substantially so that everything which is stretched gets put back on an even keel? Or do we increase them somewhere in between, looking for a reasonable increase which addresses some of the needs and gets us back on a course to health?

It’s this last alternative that the Board of Education, the Town Manager, and indeed the Town Council have chosen, for better or worse, because there is a lot that needs to be done in town.

Our equipment isn’t going to fix itself, the salt we consumed during these last two harsh winters won’t restock itself, the departments which are stretched to the max will not be able to sustain this pace, and fuel won’t magically appear to fill the tanks of the trucks and cars this town needs to continue operations. Our schools won’t meet the curricular needs of our children, their safety and welfare will not be increased in any meaningful way, and we will not provide for the activities and support these children need to get the best start in life that we can provide for them as a town. None of this will happen without this budget and the tax increase it comes with.

And that’s why we… no, that’s why I voted in support of this budget.

On particular matters within the budget, there really were only two contentious issues, and that’s an amazingly low number and is a breath of fresh air to those who have been involved in town government for the past decade.

The first contentious issue is all-day kindergarten, and the superintendent found a way to fund that within the budget presented to the Town Council. For those who are angry, as I was, that he found this money after the budget was already submitted and feel that the budget should have been lowered to the promised “level services” level, I remind you that the Town Council asks our town manager to do the same thing, year after year: find us a way to fund X, even though it’s not in the already-approved budget. On the Superintendent’s priorities of all-day kindergarten and reducing the pay-to-play costs, I can’t comment—it’s not my area of expertise, and efforts to enlighten me by both sides of the argument have proven that the old adage about statistics holds true.

The second contentious issue is funding a School Resource Officer (SRO). I’m very much in support of this expense. As to its necessity, I can only point to the anecdotal evidence offered by the Town Manager and social services staff who say that it’s a good and necessary program. It is also my understanding—and I may be wrong—that the Superintendent’s priorities have included an SRO for many years and that, though there may be higher priorities on each of the school principals’ lists, an SRO has been quite a high priority for the principals in years past, too. Here, I also trust that when the Town Manager and the Superintendent, not necessarily two people who agree on much, agree on a priority and a way to fund it, it’s better than a good idea. Finally, we have an opportunity to bring a resource to our community which, if we do not do so now, we will not be able to do so for several years. The State Police, which is in my opinion the most cost-effective and reasonable way to have SRO services for Tolland, face a manpower shortage and we’d be on the bottom of the list for an SRO when we do decide we need one. On the other hand, if the SRO doesn’t work out to be as valuable as indicated, the position can be cut. We have very little to lose here.

Could the SRO money be spent on technology which, as I’ve heard firsthand from my kids, is ancient (at best)? Yes, it could be. But I also understand that there is a plan to upgrade it in an orderly fashion. Given that the curriculum is in an incredible state of flux right now, I can’t see that dumping money into technology without aligning the purchase with the curriculum change makes much sense. It would solve a problem right now, certainly, but I’m more in favor of solving a problem long term. We’ve had too many years of short-term thinking in this town driven by short election cycles, and we cannot afford short-sighted thinking anymore. There’s a plan for technology in place, and though it will need to be changed, derailing it is not my idea of wise spending.

So there you have my thoughts on this year’s budget and why I support it. Though I know it’s not perfect, I think this budget is exceptional not only for the process by which it was created, with development of consensus early in the process, but also because it represents an excellent mix of restraint and utility. Should you vote in support of it on May 6th? I think you should.