One of the Governor’s executive orders took away the possibility of a public vote on our FY 20-21 budget, which begins July 1st. Instead, the Board of Finance finalized the budget following an “electronic” public hearing on the preliminary budget. While the Board of Finance did make some modest changes to the budget following the public hearing, taxpayers were clearly the losers in the process. Yet another mill rate increase proves once again that our town’s Board of Finance (BoF) should be independently elected rather than appointed by the Board of Selectmen.
During the “electronic” public hearing, the BoF Chairman made clear his awareness of how much people and businesses are hurting as a result of the lockdown efforts to address the new coronavirus pandemic. The preliminary budget (that was mailed to everyone) was drafted before the pandemic’s economic impacts on town residents and town business were apparent. So, while there was little mention of the reduction in our grand list, and how that would impact the budget and thus our mill rate, it was clear and reassuring that the BoF understood the economic pressures of the day, and would strive to respond favorably from the taxpayers’ perspective. What they delivered, sadly, did not help taxpayers at all.
Our new mill rate is increasing from 40.23 to 41.53. You read correctly. An increase. So, the threshold of 40 mills is now farther in the rear-view mirror. During the meeting in which the BoF approved the budget, a department-by-department review of where cuts from the preliminary budget were made was presented. Each department head was lauded for doing all they could to help out in the situation. What seemed to be missing was a “from the top” directive to get the budget to a point that the mill rate would actually go down. It’s great these savings were offered, but they simply weren’t enough to deliver the reductions that Woodbridge taxpayers need now. It seems we have a Board of Acceptance, not a Board of Finance. Yet, in the very same meeting, the Board Chairman cited a New Haven Register article listing Woodbridge among the top 25 towns in the state in terms of the number of job losses due to the pandemic and economic shutdown. Even recognizing that reality was not enough to motivate the Board of Finance to reduce the mill rate.
The Unassigned Fund Balance (UFB), now at $6.5M, was not touched. That’s the town’s rainy-day fund. Advocates for maintaining such a high balance say that a strong UFB means lower interest rates on the bonds we issue. True, once the percentage reaches 8% of a town’s budget when you speak to most municipal bond experts. We are now at or slightly over 12%. That’s tax money sitting there. Our money. One could argue we have been over-taxed to build that large a balance. The BoF could have shifted up to $2.5M from the UFB to the new budget without jeopardizing the 8% threshold. That would have made a big impact on the budget, and even a more modest allocation from the UFB would have granted some relief to hard-pressed taxpayers. Then what about next year when we don’t have that savings to dip into? The answer is that the use of some of the town’s savings would give the Board of Finance a full year to get our expenses under control, so we don’t need to dip into savings on a continuing basis.
We recognize the Beecher and Amity education budgets are the lion’s share of where our money goes, and top-quality education is vital to our town. But the Board of Finance can and should set the example of budget efficiency, and work with the Boards of Education so that they, too, stop “business as usual.” Our economy has already taken a hit and considering the continuing impact of the virus, the Board of Finance needs to take the lead in collecting fewer tax dollars. Thus far, they have not delivered.
All this points to the institutional weakness of appointing, rather than electing, our town’s Board of Finance. What we need is a publicly elected Board of Finance that is accountable to the taxpayers only, and dependent on the taxpayers, not the Selectmen, for their place on the BoF. In Woodbridge, we don’t have that. What we do have is an appointment process recycling the same few people. The Chairman has served for 25+ years, and the Board of Finance now includes a former First Selectman and two former Selectmen rounding out 4 of the 5 BoF members. It is honorable that these individuals are willing to volunteer for this work, but when one looks at their work product, it’s clear to anyone with a balanced checkbook that we need a change. Reappointing the same people year after year and enlisting former local politicians have provided Woodbridge with an awful budget, creating an uncompetitive mill rate and reduced home values. We have repeatedly advocated for the Board of Finance to be elected. The new budget should be all the evidence we need to see we are correct.
By Chuck Pyne WRTC Chairman