The Woodbridge Board of Finance, at a special meeting March 27, voted to recommend to the public a $48.2 million budget packet for the 2017-18 Fiscal Year. The package includes $14.2 million for Beecher Road School, and $14.7 million for the Amity system. The public hearing is scheduled for Monday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m., in the Center Building gym.
If approved, expenditures in the next Fiscal Year starting July 1, 2017, are up by 1.7% over this year’s budget, and to cover that the town would need to increase taxes by 1.3%. This number reflects a slight increase in the Grand List – the master list of all taxable property in town. The school budgets are up 3.1% and 3.2%, respectively. The mill rate, the factor by which each taxpayer’s actual tax liability is established, would increase to 39.4 from the current 38.5 for real estate and business personal property. The motor vehicle mill rate, which is now regulated by the state to avoid vast differences between towns, will decrease from this year’s 37 mills to 32 mills.
Thus homeowners will see an increase in real estate taxes, but a decrease in motor vehicle taxes. The first selectman, in her invitation to the budget hearing, points out that the total proposed tax packet would translate into a tax increase of about $160 for an average household.
The proposed budget is the result of several rounds of cuts, with some difficult choices in all departments. The municipal part of the budget is down a half a percentage point, said Finance Director Anthony Genovese in a conversation after the meeting. The fact that the decrease isn’t any larger in spite of some significant cuts is due to an increase in the Beecher building project debt service, he said.
Cuts suggested by government departments and approved by the Board of Finance include a currently unfilled police officer position; restructuring of the Parks Department; and reducing two clerical positions at Town Hall. Officials cut $200,000 from the Public Works Department’s road repair budget; and $54,000 from the fire department.
Finance Board members wrestled with several of the suggested cuts. For instance, the Public Works director had agreed to lower the road repair line item by $400,000; but the board, concerned at the prospect of ending up with a $400,000 expenditure increase the following year to get the road paving program back up to its traditional level, finance board members added $200,000 back into the budget proposal.
School Resource Officer – In its effort to decrease its budget, the Police Commission decided to cut the Beecher Road School resource officer. School Resource Officers, or SROs, are regular law enforcement personnel posted at schools, usually high schools, where they help provide a safe learning environment. But in Woodbridge the tradition has been to keep a police officer at the elementary school as well. The officer, Vinny Lynch, patrols the sprawling campus, helps with drop-off and pick-up procedures and teaches alcohol and drug awareness classes.
The advantage of that system is that the children grow up interacting with law enforcement personnel and developing an attitude of trust to see him as somebody they can turn to, said former Superintendent Guy Stella. Officer Lynch also helped school officials devise new security measures after the school shooting in Newtown.
When parents heard that the school may lose its officer, it created a great deal of concern. A group of parents started a petition, said Jessica Artemchuk, one of the concerned mothers. They got close to 400 signatures, she said, many of them from parents, but some from affected students, grandparents and others interested in school safety. They spoke at the Police Commission meeting. They were assured that Officer Lynch would be present until the end of the school year, but for next year his position would have to be paid for by the Board of Education. Board of Education Chairman Margaret Hamilton at the March 20 board meeting expressed support for their cause and assured parents that they would keep the resource officer.
However, that meant taking monies from other places to come up with the $127,000 needed to employ a resource officer. Superintendent Robert Gilbert, in conjunction with the board, presented a revised budget request to the Board of Finance. They severely cut back technology replacement as well as a teacher’s aide and reduced hours of a custodian, but added the resource officer back in.
That did not go over well with the finance board. “I still haven’t found an elementary school that has an SRO,” said finance board Chairman Matt Giglietti. “They are doing what parents wanted,” said board member Sandy Stein. She felt the school could have hired a security person instead. Fellow board member Andrew Esposito did not like to see the technology cut back. “The one thing that sets us apart is technology. To cut that out troubles me,” he added. Karen Cusick recognized that the school board made every effort not to cut into the educational program, and yet come up with a budget savings. “Maybe they can do some fundraising,” she mused.
In the end, the finance board accepted the cuts suggested by the Board of Education, but it did not fund the School Resource Officer. For the superintendent and the Board of Education this means back to the drawing board to absorb the new cuts. For the parents who had supported the police presence, this was not the hoped-for outcome. “We don’t want to see services cut,” Artemchuk said.
State budget – The challenge for all municipalities is to set a budget without knowing how much financial support they can expect from the state. This year in particular, the looming budget crisis at the state level is creating an atmosphere of uncertainty. Governor Dannel Malloy has suggested making the municipalities assume responsibility for the teachers’ pension fund. Woodbridge’s portion for Beecher and Amity schools would be $1.28 million, according to Anthony Genovese. “Hopefully we won’t get stung too badly,” said board chairman Giglietti.
The Board of Finance can make changes to the preliminary budget after the hearing, based on taxpayers’ input. The budget is then brought back for taxpayer’s approval at the Annual Town Meeting on Monday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m., again at the Center Building gym. Most years the attendance at the Town Meeting does not constitute a quorum and the final vote reverts to the Board of Finance.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent