Committee of Chairs brainstorms ways to balance the books

By SHERIDAN CYR

STAFF WRITER

Budget discussions continue across elected boards and departments in Southington, and that conversation was at the center of the rescheduled meeting of the Committee of the Chairs. The meeting allowed a discussion about Board of Education concerns regarding their budget, and the supplemental cuts they are facinig due to a reduction in state funding.

The group met on March 8 after weather-related issues caused them to cancel the day before.

Throughout this year’s budget process, town officials have been grappling with a $5.1 million hole in the current budget caused by a reduction in state funding. The town was able to cover $3 million after the Town Council voted to release the contingency fund created by the Board of Finance. The fund was created with a tax increase last year in preparation for anticipated budget cuts.

Town officials still need to address the remaining $2.1 million shortfall.

BOE chair Brian Goralski brought to the committee a potential consideration: dip into the self insurance fund to aid in balancing the budget. Employees of the town are insured by the town rather than an outside insurance company. At the end of each fiscal year, excess money is returned to the town if employee insurance claims have not exceeded the fund.

Town Council chair Chris Palmieri raised some concerns to Goralski’s suggestion.

“The sense I’m getting is no one is necessarily opposed to using that fund, however, there is some concern with the timing of it,” Palmieri said. “People are concerned about approving that in March when there’s still April, May and June to get through.”

Insurance claims are made throughout the fiscal year, or from July 1 to June 30. For the suggestion to be taken into consideration, it would need to come from the Self Insurance Committee as a recommendation to the Town Council, which would then make a decision. That process could take until April for the question to make it from board to board, and even at that point, there is no guarantee it will be approved.

“The question is ‘when,’” Palmieri said, “because when is it going to be too late to be considered for our mitigation plans?”

The mitigation plans refer to the $2.1 million deficit that remains in the FY 17-18 budget and needs to be addressed before the FY 18-19 budget conversations can move forward. A decision was reached by the BOF to divide the amount that needs to be cut between the town and the BOE.

Superintendent Tim Connellan suggested that the council and the self insurance committee sit down with Joe Spurgeon, a health benefits consultant and ex-officio member of the committee, so he can take them through the data he put together regarding the fund balance.

“It’s not just about claims. It was a view of what that balance looks like and what it should look like given certain parameters,” he said. “It is in fact a very healthy fund balance, and I think the sooner people look at that, the better we understand what we’re dealing with.”

Connellan and Goralski suggested the information be handed out and reviewed by council and committee members sooner than their regularly scheduled meetings, so they have time to review and ask questions.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be a vote of the council, and I’m not sure there’s enough support of the council, if any, this early because of fear of spending the money and finding out there are more claims to come,” said Palmieri.

As a result of inadequate funds, the BOE made the decision to cut eight teaching positions, six paraeducator positions, the elementary world language pilot program, middle school sports, and decided to delay purchasing new textbooks. To reach the $2.1 million, the BOE is still being asked to make more cuts and talk about the potential for layoffs.

The BOE is seeking communication and interactive conversation from residents during this process.

When asked to comment on the budget process overall, Connellan urged Southington residents to “learn all they can about the proposed budget and to then share their feelings with their elected officials.”

“I think it is critical to provide our elected officials with input regarding the budget and how residents would like to see services funded,” he said. “It is important to note that the regular public meetings of the elected boards and the Town Council all have time set aside for public communications.”

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.

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