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Town’s Modest Spending Increase Mostly Supports Education

Town’s Modest Spending Increase Mostly Supports Education

Town leaders presented a budget with a tax increase of four tenths of a mill at the annual budget hearing April 22.  The spending plan pushed the mill rate from the current 39.83 to 40.23 for the 2019-20 fiscal year.  For an average property assessed at $297,000 (this assessment represents 70% of the market price) taxes would increase by $119, from the current $11,830 to $11,949.

The Annual Town Meeting will take place at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 20, in the Center Gym.  For a quorum, 250 eligible voters need to be present, but typically are not.  In the absence of a quorum, the vote to approve the budget reverts to the Board of Finance, which will convene immediately following the Town Meeting.

Once approved, the 2019-20 budget foresees total expenditures of $50.3 million, up 1.62% from this year’s budget.  The increase in spending is almost exclusively due to education needs, with a $530,000 increase to the elementary school budget; and $253,000 increase in the Amity budget for the middle-and high schools.  By comparison, the town government spending increases by $17,000.

What is new in this spending plan is that the Beecher Road School budget ($15.2 million) comes in higher than Woodbridge’s share of the Amity budget ($14.9 million).  For the elementary district that represents a 3.6% increase.  The Amity budget increases by 1.06% overall, but Woodbridge’s portion of regional district increases by 1.72%.  The allocation is based on the number of students each town sends to the district schools.

Both Woodbridge School Supt. Robert Gilbert and Board of Education Chairman Margaret Hamilton thanked the town for supporting the school and its programs throughout the years.  “I recognize we are asking for a higher percentage [increase] than normal,” Gilbert said at the hearing, citing enrollment increases and the increase of students enrolled in special education programs as the main budget drivers.  The total budget allocation will allow the school to preserve staffing and programming at current levels, he said.

Several teachers who live in town spoke in their dual role as taxpayers and district employees, saying it is not just the legal, but moral obligation of the community to educate its children.  “A school district is not like other town budgets,” said primary math coordinator Jean Molot.  Kindergarten teacher Nicole Chick pointed out how students’ special needs increased dramatically in the past few years, but the support staff did not.  Traditionally, the school has tried to address not only academic, but social-emotional needs of its students, she said.  Sixth-grade teacher Kim Franklin told the audience how increasing class sizes impacted the time she had for each individual student.  In 2015-16, she had 19 students in her class; a year later, 20; then 21 and this year, 23.  It will limit the time she can devote to each student individually, she said, and may limit her focus on students’ potential.  “It will cost us later,” she warned.

What it pays for:  One of the major objectives for the upcoming year is to move forward with planning for the police facility update.  Currently, the police department is located in the lower level of the Center Building, which used to be the town’s elementary school before Beecher Road School was built.  The facility was deemed too small and not adequate for the needs of a modern department years ago, when the town commissioned an architectural needs study.  That study will have to be updated.  But resident Michael Broderick disagreed with the Board of Finance at the budget hearing.

“How can you justify [spending millions] when the town is suffering from some of your previous judgements,” Broderick said.  The police station is not needed, he said, since the officers are spending most of their time in the cruisers anyway.  Chairman Giglietti responded by saying the police station is housed in a sub-standard building, with boxes piled up everywhere.  “Take a tour,” he suggested.

Senior Center Director Jeanette Glicksman, whose agency also is located in the Center Building, agreed that the building is outdated.  “It is really time [to update] this building,” she said.  She thought it was hypocritical for people to be calling on the town to restore the abandoned clubhouse at the former Country Club of Woodbridge, but to not be willing to update the building that is a working building for this town.

The Human Services Department, which governs the senior center program, also has been working on making plans for a more efficient, contemporary and needs-oriented facility.  But the senior center renovation has been postponed.

The old firehouse:  In addition to the police station, the town plans to continue with improvements to the old firehouse at the corner of Newton and Center roads.  The building sustained a fire in 2006, and the envelope has since been restored using insurance proceeds.  Inside however, it is unfinished.  The project will be paid for by a $500,000 STEAP grant that will expire at the end of this year.  The Board of Selectmen has decided to proceed with renovations that will need to be done irrespective of future uses of the space.  Things such as mechanicals, a sprinkler system and an ADA accessible bathroom and elevator will be needed irrespective of the type of future use.

In the meantime, town officials are talking to the Amity district about potentially housing its transition program on the upper level of the old firehouse.  Uses being considered for the lower level include moving the fitness center into one bay, creating a meeting room, and possibly moving historic artifacts into the building.  The fire department already stores an antique fire truck, and that is expected to stay.

Capital plan:  For 2019-20, the capital plan includes $1.2 million, namely a fire engine lease payment; Public Works truck replacement reserve, road paving reserve; and a partial payment for a passenger lift-equipped van for the senior center.

Country Club:  Over the past three years, town leaders have discontinued use of the former Country Club of Woodbridge.  Selectmen voted last fall to close the outdoor pool, since membership had been dwindling.  Most recently, the finance board decided to turn off water and heat in the dilapidated clubhouse, removing the property from its operating and its capital budget.  The grounds will be mowed once during the season and dead trees and branches moved out of the way, so as to allow people to walk the former cart paths.

Meanwhile the town continues to pay down the debt on the $7 million purchase.  So far, the town has taken advantage of low interest rates and financed the Country Club purchase with short-term notes rather than long-term bonding.  However, there are time limits on this, and the town will have to either pay off the debt or refinance next year.

Town employee salaries do not show any increases in the budget document, but that is because the town is in negotiations with the unions.  A larger amount than usual has been set aside in the contingency fund for that reason, said Finance Director Anthony Genovese.

Reactions:  At the hearing, resident Anthony Viglione called the amount the town spends on employee benefits “outrageous.”  At $4.5 million for 83 employees, the town is paying about 55,000 per employee.  Finance chair Matthew Giglietti did not disagree.  He said the number includes benefits for retirees, a practice that the town has eliminated.

Viglione also challenged town leaders to eliminate $465,000 from the expenditures to arrive at a 0 mill increase.  “That would be a major statement and a move in the right direction,” he said.

One expense he questioned was the $813,000 price tag for running the town library.  He questioned whether the library is being used in the digital age.  Maybe they need to cut back the hours, he suggested, adding that the schools have their own libraries.

Resident Susan Davidson disagreed.  “Our library is a treasure, and an extension of the educational system,” she said, adding, “A library is a mark of an educated community.”

Ed Weinberg, a candidate for first selectman, brought up concerns that property values are declining and taxes rising.  Once the mill rate passes the 40 thresh hold, “you are in a new class,” he said.  At the same time the fund balance grows every year.  The fund balance constitutes the town’s rainy-day fund that accumulates unassigned dollars.  It stands at about $5.8 million, 11.8% of expenditures.  “We have been overtaxing the taxpayer,” Weinberg said, and suggested to apply some of that money to the operating budget to bring those figures down.

Finance Chairman Matt Giglietti brought the suggestion of reducing the fund balance up during the finance board meeting following the public hearing.  The problem with applying those dollars to the operating budget is that it will help bring down the numbers one year, but then you have to make that up the following year, he said.  In fact, the Board of Finance has been applying $400,000 from fund balance every year for a number of years now.

Resident Cheryl Lipson asked town leaders why the property values are decreasing.  Assessor Betsy Quist said a property will depreciate by ten percent every year.  Since the town is not bringing in much business, the Grand List is not growing.  In addressing economic development, First Selectman Beth Heller said their first priority is to protect and support the businesses that are in town already.  “Then we’ll have a look at how we can expand from there,” she said.

Resident Stephen Falcigno pointed out the lagging property values.  Since the recession in 2007/08, property values have plummeted by 35% he said, and have not come back up.  “The only way you can change that is by being fiscally responsible,” he said to the town leaders.  “Otherwise you will not have any seniors coming [to the senior center],” he said sarcastically.

By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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