Joint boards adopt $125.1 million borough budget

NAUGATUCK — After months of discussions and workshops, borough officials have approved a $125.1 million budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

The Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance voted to adopt the budget, 16-1, May 15. The budget increases spending by $3.2 million, or 2.62 percent, over this fiscal year’s budget. The budget will be officially adopted after May 29, which is the deadline for residents to submit petitions with signatures from 8 percent — about 1,400 — of the registered voters in the borough to force referendum.

While spending is going up, the joint boards set the 2019-20 tax rate at 47.25 mills, which is a decrease of 1.1 mills. To help lower the tax rate, officials decided last week to use $1 million, which equates to about 0.65 mills, from the borough’s fund balance as revenue in the budget.

The cut in the tax rate comes after a property revaluation last year. So, whether residents see a reduction in their property taxes will depend of how their assessments fared after the revaluation.

Board of Finance Chairman Dan Sheridan said the budget is fair to residents and the borough.

“I think we have worked long and hard on it and took into account the comments from the taxpayers at the public hearing as well as our own personal experiences as taxpayers. I think it is a fair budget to cover the needs in the town,” Sheridan said.

The budget adoption wasn’t without its share of debate. Burgess Jack DeOliveira was the only one to vote against the overall budget, but the most divisive issue was the Board of Education budget.

The school budget is $62.2 million, which is an increase of $200,000, or 0.3 percent, but about $2 million less than the request the Board of Education presented to the finance board.

The reduction from the request includes a transfer of about $1.12 million in debt payments from the school budget to the municipal budget. Borough officials made the transfer to open up funds in the school budget while keeping the overall increase down to avoid setting a new benchmark under the state’s minimum budget requirement. State law requires municipalities to spend at least as much on education from one year to the next, with a few exceptions.

Also, a $500,000 special education grant from the state that the borough received and was counted within the borough’s allocation for the school budget is now factored as part of grant revenue the school board receives.

The $62.2 million represents the borough’s allocation for the school budget. The school board’s total operating budget includes grant and supplemental revenue. In total, the overall school operating budget for 2019-20 is roughly $71.5 million, an increase of about $1.7 million from this fiscal year’s total operating budget.

The budget adoption came two days after a hearing on the spending plan, during which Board of Education Chair Dorothy Neth-Kunin asked the joint boards to restore $258,000 to the school budget.

“Our goal is to provide a high quality education while providing a safe learning environment,” Neth-Kunin said. “We do our best for our students we have in this district. We ask that you to do your best in finding a way to grant the additional request.”

Members of the joint boards argued for and against restoring the money, before voting 9 to 8 to leave the budget at $62.2 million.

Sheridan said the borough took on debt from the Board of Education and still gave the board money. He referred to reductions school officials identified after the request was reduced as well as information from the school board’s May meeting that stated school officials anticipate being able to identify additional savings of $148,092 within the coming months.

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said he was in favor of adding back some money to the Board of Education because he doesn’t want to see the schools just get by.

“The question is do we want them to get by or do we want them to keep moving forward and strive to be even better,” Hess said. “A better education system is going to raise property values and, ultimately, serve to reduce the mill rate as property values go up.”

The only change the joint boards made to the budget last week was adding $3,000 to pay for the borough to be a full member of the Greater Waterbury Transit Service. The money offsets some of the cost of bus rides for eligible residents. The money was taken out by the joint boards several years ago.

The municipal budget is $62.97 million, an increase of approximately $3 million, or about 5 percent.

The increase includes the $1.12 million in debt taken from the school budget, $357,627 more for the police department, an additional $148,900 for the fire department, and $276,151 more for the water pollution control board.

Hess the spending plan doesn’t kick the can down the road and invests in items the borough needs. He described the spending plan as a “totally pure budget” that is a positive step toward bringing the borough back to being as attractive and popular as it was when corporations such as Uniroyal operated downtown.

“In order for Naugatuck to really get there, it is a 20-year climb. I like to see progress every year and to see the town get better every year and to see the property values go up,” Hess said.