SOUTHINGTON — Town finance officials clashed over a budget recommendation that increases taxes in the upcoming fiscal year although not as much as initially proposed.
Town Manager Mark Sciota’s spending plan totaled $174.8 million, a $12.5 million increase from the current year.
To fund the budget would require a tax rate increase of more than 6.6 percent.
In a series of votes Wednesday, the Board of Finance voted to approve a $173.4 million budget requiring a 4.22 percent tax increase.
Many of the key votes were along party lines, with Republicans in the majority prevailing over Democrats.
The two parties also disagreed over the cause of the sudden spike in town costs.
The Town Council will have the final say in Southington’s budget.Split votes on education, general government
The general fund is split into three parts: education, general government and debt service.
Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on the largest portion of the budget, $110.5 million for the school district.
Republicans approved the amount and also supported using more than $700,000 in unspent education funds this year.
“The Board of Education has asked us to do this,” said Tony Morrison, a finance board Republican. “That’s their determination for what’s the best thing for this budget.”
Kevin Beaudoin, a finance Democrat, said the reallocation of unspent funds concealed how much the board was reducing the school district’s request.
Education officials had initially asked for a budget of more than $112 million.
The current budget is $104 million.
Republicans said any safety issues that needed to be addressed in the upcoming year could be funded with town reserves.
The parties also parted ways on the spending for general government. Republicans prevailed, passing a budget for town government spending of just under $50 million.
Neither the education nor general government budgets included any new personnel or programs.
The debt service budget was approved unanimously.Reducing taxes or playing games?
The finance board undertook several measures to reduce the tax burden of the upcoming budget.
That included revising assumptions of tax collection and the income generated on investments as well as using $2 million in reserve funds.
The town’s policy is to have 11 percent of its operating budget as a reserve, about $19 million. Republicans said there’s more than $7 million in reserve above that rainy day fund.
Finance board chairman John Leary said the fund was very healthy and is being added to annually.
“Every year I’ve been here we’ve generated a surplus of well over $1 million. That money goes into it,” he said.
Sue Zoni, a finance board Democrat, said Republicans were “playing games” with the budget numbers and had discussed how to get tax percentage increases to 3.99 percent or just under 4.5 percent.
“We the public, you the public, know better,” she said.
Zoni said years of ignoring community needs and low spending led to this year’s significant tax increase.
She was also concerned about what might happen to the town’s finances if a major emergency occurred and reserves were low.
Zoni referenced her displeasure over local elections, saying she hated politics although she loved government.
“I’m not running again (for Board of Finance). I can’t stand it,” she said.
In response, Morrison said that the town has more than adequate reserves to handle an emergency and help ease the tax burden in the upcoming year.
“We have enough money to do that,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to get the idea that our reserves are getting played with. They’re not. It’s a serious fiscal issue for this town and we’ve got them covered.”
Leary agreed with Zoni that the board’s goal was to reduce the initial, high tax increase to something that was and appeared to be more reasonable.
“We discussed optics,” he said.Inflation, rising rates
Republicans have said much of the spending increase necessary this year to fund town and school operations are the result of inflation.
When asked about the impact of inflation on his budget by Beaudoin, Sciota called it “huge.” He cited fuel prices, which jumped this year from a rate just over a dollar per gallon to nearly three dollars per gallon. Prices rose across the board.
“We buy everything you guys buy down to the paper products,” Sciota said.
The town manager also cited increasing health care costs and an increase in the town’s required contribution to the state pension system. Debt service costs also rose as interest rates have risen.
Leary said both inflation and the attempt to curb it, hiking interest rates, have increased town expenses but are out of the town’s control.
“We get hit with the inflation and we get hit with the countermeasure,” he said.