There’s no Magic Money Tree

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In the last Drummer a fragment of the Democratic Town Committee took issue with my shot across the bow in the prior issue that indicated that the boards need to be focusing on flatter operating budgets and contract implications for FY22. Given the financial tightness and uncertainties facing both the town and the families of Granby due to the pandemic, a bipartisan consensus on the Board of Finance recognizes that we should work collectively to hold the mill rate flat for FY22, just as we have for the current year. Within their letter, they agree with the goal of another year of a flat mill rate given this unique moment in time yet feel they would rather see greater spending funded by money from heaven— or at least from your other pocket.

The two sources of money from heaven they target are the state taxpayer-funded Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant and federal taxpayer-funded Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) money. The ECS formula as approved by the legislature for Granby and nearly all towns reflects a steadily declining amount each year for the rest of this decade with the only increases going to the cities. In his budget last year Lamont looked to give the towns even less but was unsuccessful because legislators held firm against that. Given the now-projected $3-billion deficits the state faces annually going forward, we’ll be lucky to see the modestly declining schedule adhered to—never mind see more money from the state to help offset greater spending.

The other funding source mentioned is FEMA, which provides funds for qualifying catastrophic events. Handing out raises is not a qualifying event. This source, in conjunction with the state, has been funded to assist in covering extraordinary COVID-19-related municipal and education reopening expenses, it is for one-time costs, not ongoing expenses that, once introduced, need to be funded within a local budget yearly with local tax dollars.

No matter which way you slice it, 90 percent of the local overall budget is the operating budgets. About 75 percent of those operating components are the contracts encompassing salaries and benefits, and 80 percent of the overall funding is through local property tax dollars. Hence, as go the contracts, so goes the budget and the mill rate. The flatter they are, the greater the ability to flatten the mill rate. While the final year of significant drop off in Debt Service will help in getting to a flat mill rate in FY22, we will also need flatter operating increases than we have been seeing of late, which means next year’s compensation numbers as well. That’s not a threat; it’s reality.

While it is certainly true that townspeople recognize the continuing contributions to our town during this pandemic by all of the employees of the Town of Granby—both municipal and in education—it is equally true that so many of those who foot the bill in town have continued providing goods and services facing similar interaction with the public. This includes not just police, fire and ambulance, and those protecting our health in medical offices and hospitals, but also those picking up trash, stocking shelves and at the checkout at a store, growing and shipping our food, and fixing a pipe or a furnace or delivering oil, gas, and diesel. That too is the real world, and in that real world we know that while the economy has improved as things reopened, many of our neighbors have yet to return to work, and many of those working are earning less than they had been. All this factors into our view that working towards holding the mill rate flat again is both reasoned and reasonable, and that means we need to have a year with fairly flat operating budgets and contracts. You can’t do one without the other.