By: Maria Moore
Not many people schedule meetings on Friday evenings at 5:30 but when Ben Witte, the Board of Finance Chairman suggested that as a possible time to meet, our reporter quickly agreed. Ben was responding to our reporter’s request to meet and talk about the 2011 budget that’s currently being put together and the two agreed to meet this past Friday, February 19 at Dunkin’ Donuts in New Hartford. Following is a report of their conversation.
Our reporter started the conversation by referring back to Ben’s meeting with Regional #7 administrators on which he’d updated his fellow Board of Finance members at their February 9 meeting; see our February 17 report Budget Takes Center Stage… for Ben’s account of that meeting.
“I heard you’d met with the New Hartford Schools Board of Ed as well…?” Our reporter asked. Ben confirmed he had attended that Board of Ed’s meeting on February 2. He said he had gotten the message that the New Hartford BOE was looking for direction from the Board of Finance and so he had gone there and laid out the revenue side of the budget to them. “If revenues are flat, then expenses need to be flat.” Â This had been his message to the Board of Ed. Â For the official minutes of that meeting please visit the Meeting Minutes page of the Board of Ed’s website.
The message from the Board of Finance to both Boards of Ed and to the Town’s administration is the same: Bring in budgets with 0% (zero percent) increases.
Revenues will be flat, Ben confirmed. The grand list is projected to grow by only 0.13% which is less than $20,000 of new revenues, and the grand list accounts for 75% of the town’s revenue. “I’ve been involved (with the Board of Finance) for 10 years and I’ve never seen it that low!” Ben said.
The rest of the town’s money comes from the state and that’s projected to be down slightly, if the governor’s budget is accepted, as Ben thinks is likely to happen. “There’s still revenue from 2010 (the current fiscal year) that still hasn’t come in (from the state).” Ben reminded our reporter. and as far as money from the state for the town’s 2011 budget? “We won’t know until next year.” Ben said.
The basis for next year’s budget according to Ben is: “This is how much we have, and this is what we have to spend.”
As far as new expenditures, Ben pointed out that the BOF members had made an exception for the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). The Board needs to see projections for the WWTP funding for next year and Town Treasurer Gordon Ross will be meeting with the WPCA to get an official number from them.
“The BAN (Bond Anticipation Note) for $122,000 comes due in September and the intention is to pay it off.” Ben said. There will also be a $16,000 per month payment to the USDA to be made (for the WWTP), he added.
There are two choices to come up with the additional money for the WWTP according to Ben:
- Use the budget surplus from last year to fund it; or
- Increase taxes.
“Hopefully we’ll get what we asked for.” Ben said, returning to the 0% (zero percent) expectation set by the BOF. Â Â ”If not, we can tell them to make it a 0 (zero) increase.” He continued, referring to the New Hartford Schools and the Town budgets over which theÂ BOF has the authority to set the amount of the proposed budget. Â ”For Region #7 we don’t have the authority,” he clarified. Â The BOF budget is then brought to the public and it’s up to the voters to approve it or not.
Ben went over the timeline for the 2011 budget with our reporter:
- On April 6 at 7:00 p.m. the BOF will bring the proposed budget to a Public Hearing to get residents’ input;
- On April 13 at their regular BOF meeting, the BOF members will discuss the input from the Public Hearing and make any adjustments necessary to the budget;
- On April 27 the annual Budget Meeting will be held and the meeting will then be adjourned to Referendum;
- On May 4 the Referendum will be held.
A 0 (Zero) Budget And How To Get There
“The Board of Finance needed to send a strong message to the schools and to the town in order to get them to take it seriously.” Ben said about the 0 (zero) budget. “The question the schools and the town need to ask themselves is: “What do you have to do to get to 0 (zero)?” ” Ben’s answer to the question is: “You need to look at how to get to 0 (zero). Â It seems to me you have to change the structure of how you do things to get to 0 (zero).” Â A very different process from what they have been doing over the past several years, which is to cut their initial budget request.
Ben gave some examples of the kinds of structural changes he’s talking about:
- Have a Regional K-12 school;
- Have Shared Services for Special Ed.
“I don’t think you want to take anything off the table.” Ben said, because: “You either increase taxes 5% or so, or you need to look at ways to run the schools and the town Â differently.”
The conversation then turned to the New Hartford Schools teachers’ contract which has a 6% increase per year for teachers’ salaries. Â Ben pointed out that we’re in the second year of the contract, with 2 more years to go. Â ”That’s about a $180,000 increase in one year!” Â Altogether, Ben calculated that about $330,000 of the budget increase for local schools ~ outside of health insurance ~ is due to pay incrases.
“I feel strongly that, if the teachers agree, the town would realize another $100,000 from other unions ~ if teachers do it!” Ben said. Â ”I don’t see how we can have a budget that’s acceptable without addressing the teachers’ increase. Â Everyone else is getting 0 (zero) ~ and furlough days on top if that! Â Everyone has to play in the game.” Â Ben said they’d approached the teachers out of fairness to give back the 6%. Â ”There’s been no response and it doesn’t seem like there’s any intention to do that.” Â Ben called it “extremely unfortunate” and that “people are looking at every way to avoid tax increases.”
“What doesn’t work in good times may be palatable in bad times.” Â Ben added, pointing out that you hear things like closing a school. Â ”I don’t know what you can do to the teachers but appeal to their sense of fair play. I would hope the general public would do the same.” Â With education at 70% of the overall budget “it costs a lot of money.”
Ben said he didn’t have a reference point for the town budget yet. Â ”We’re struggling to meet the budget for last year at 0%. Â I don’t know what numbers we’re looking at.” Â His strong sense, though, is that we need to put more money into the road budget.
Asked for his final thoughts, Ben said: “Tough decisions are necessary to get the budgets where we’ve asked. Â I hope teachers who are a big part will play in the game and others could follow suit. Â It could easily be a $280,000 find in the budget. Â Compared to $20,000 in new revenue, it’s a big dent in the problem.”
And with that, the two shook hands and with a final “Call me if you need anything,” Ben and our reporter each headed off home after a long week of work.