Budgets presented at Board of Finance Public Hearing

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The Finance Board conducted a public hearing on April 10 to discuss the proposed budget for the fiscal year July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024, available on the town website, in the Town Hall and in the Library since April 6.

Board of Finance Chairman Mike Guarco gave a brief overview of the budget process, summarizing the 4.95 percent increase and noting the mill rate decrease from the previous 39.98 to 31.89, a 20.24 percent decrease. He then introduced First Selectman and acting Town Manager Mark Fiorentino.

Fiorentino expressed his appreciation to the town staff who have worked over and above their usual functions in preparing the budget. He enumerated three strategic goals that guided the budget process. First, the budget should allow the town to operate with financial stability for the short and long-term needs of the town. Second, the budget should allow effective management of, and act as steward of, the town’s infrastructure, facilities and properties. Finally, the budget should ensure that the providers of town services have sufficient resources and facilities to accomplish their missions.

Fiorentino noted one particular line item increase in the budget for Public Works. It became clear in the budget workshops that residents want improvements and upgrades made to roads, thus the increase in funding. He also noted that it is time to upgrade the emergency communications system, hence the larger than normal reserve. (See related article on emergency communications on p. 1.)

Board of Education Chair Sarah Thrall reported that the BOE’s 2023-24 budget is a 5.08 percent increase over the current one. She cited the rising cost of utilities, the transfer of costs from the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) to the operating budget, and substantial increases in expenses for special education.

The board feels that this budget will support the 2021-25 strategic educational plan.

Following the presentations, residents were invited to comment or ask questions. Glenn Ballard took issue with Fiorentino’s comment that the budget represented the town being able to do more with less and asked for a specific example. Fiorentino said that Public Works has to maintain more roads with less staff. It has been 20 years since additional staff has been hired.

Ballard then asked if the town has hired any part-timers and Fiorentino said one new part-time person was hired in Parks and Rec. Ballard then disagreed with Fiorentino’s statement that although we’d all love a zero-increase budget, it can’t be achieved without cutting services. Ballard commented that not including such a large reserve for the emergency communication upgrade would allow getting to zero without raising taxes. Fiorentino replied that would necessitate using the reserve to pay salaries, and not doing the system upgrade.

Robert Flanigan inquired if there was a state law that required some minimum amount be held in reserve in the town’s budget. Guarco replied that to the best of his knowledge, there was no such law, but the Granby BOS has adopted a policy, based on bonding agency recommended standards, to try to keep around 15 percent of the annual budget in reserve.

Flanigan next argued that the cost of the proposed emergency communication system update will cause residents to be over-taxed. “You are hurting us.” He also is not in favor of the Post-Secondary Transition Program for 18 to 22-year-old students planned by the Board of Education. “We’re going backwards,” he said.

Granby Ambulance Association Board president and CEO Lorri DiBattisto thanked the boards for their hard work in preparing the budgets. She was especially appreciative of the communication system update project as the Ambulance Association’s current communication system is 35 years old.Kim Becker also thanked the boards and town staff for their work. She complimented the BOE on the transition program for special education students.

Maureen Eberly commented in favor of the special education transition plan, noting that it was a federally mandated program begun in 1971. The program will not be for every student, just the ones who need support. Eberly asked about the Quality and Diversity program funding. Granby participates in this state mandated program by way of Open Choice, in which Granby enrolls students from Hartford. $1 million has been set aside for this program.

Eberly asked about expenditures for the teachers’ health insurance program. Finance board member Jenny Emery clarified that Granby teachers are self-insured. “We set our own rates; they are not charged by Anthem. Our actuary looks at our actual claims and projects what we will need the next year. If claims come in higher, we use our health benefit reserves to cover them. If the claims come in lower the extra goes into the reserves for the future, they do not go to Anthem, which is paid only administrative costs.” Eberly inquired about looking into cost-sharing with state or regional entities, but Emery noted that year in and year out, our own experience has been better than that of public sector medical costs.

Ken Berkowitz wanted to know if the housing at Station 280 will cause an increase in needed services. Fiorentino replied that the apartments there and at the Grand contribute to the grand list, benefiting the tax situation. As far as a potential increase in school students, despite a slight initial bump, the enrollment in 2028 will be 100 fewer than the current number, according to Emery.

Gary Rothig noted that the town was being deceptive regarding the mill rate going down, however he reinforced the fact that the greatest percentage of the municipal budget increase is because the majority of town employees’ wages are based on union contracts. His suggestion was that the town publish descriptions of the available town jobs. Fiorentino approved the suggestion and noted that staff will try to get that on the new town website.

With no further public input, Guarco closed the public session. The Board of Finance then met to finalize the budget for the referendum on April 24.

June 2023 Correction: In Budgets presented at Board of Finance Public Hearing we wrongly reported that Mark Fiorentino responded to an inquiry made by Robert Flanigan. Mike Guarco replied to Flanigan. In addition, we incorrectly stated that Flanigan was opposed to the emergency communications system and the state-mandated Post-Secondary Transition Program.