Budget season for the Town of Southington is already well-underway. Several important meeting dates have been announced, including departmental budget presentations, public hearings, and critical votes that will ultimately lead to the Board of Finance setting the mill rate in May of 2019.
The Town Manager Mark Sciota and director of finance Emilia Portelinha distributed letters of expectations to all town government department heads and anticipate seeing their budgets roll in by Jan. 4. Then, the two will sit down with all of the departments’ budgets and do a “first run.”
“We’ll do that between when we receive our budgets and the end of January,” said Sciota.
Two important dates occur after that point. Before Feb. 1, the director of revenue Theresa Babon will deliver the grand list to Sciota.
“The grand list takes all the property in town and assessed the property,” he said. “The grand list shows all of the taxable property we have, and we hope that it is a higher number than last year.”
The second milepost is Feb. 6, the date the governor-elect will give his budget address. At that time, the Connecticut Council of Municipalities (CCM) will disclose documents to each town. Sciota will also receive anticipated state revenue numbers from Southington’s representatives in the state government.
“All of those numbers will all be anticipated revenues, because that is just the start of the budget process up in Hartford,” said Sciota. “My understanding is, hopefully, we can rely on those numbers to be our base numbers. If we get more, so be it.”
He will then take a second pass at the town budgets. By mid-February, the Board of Education’s budget will have been voted on by the board. The BOE will give their budget to the BOF on Feb. 13 for discussion.
At that point Sciota will have the BOE’s anticipated increase, and he will be able to work on the revenue and total expenses by using both the BOE and general government budgets. On Feb. 18, he will hand his budget over to the BOF for review.
Sciota remains optimistic about this year’s budget planning in comparison to last year’s. There was an entirely different budget system last year that would up cutting funding to the town and causing significant problems as officials worked to balance a budget full of holes.
“Last year, Gov. Dannell Malloy put a plan in place where he took, in essence, a revenue source for the town and kind of took it off the budget,” said Sciota. “What we did was budgeted based on that, and as it got less and less popular in Hartford, they said ‘We’re going to go back to the other way.’ So the BOE’s approved budget was a lot lower than necessary because we expected the revenue from the state.”
Sciota advised that officials “not change the world based upon last year.”
“My understanding is we’re going back to the original way, and there won’t be any off-budget revenue,” he said.
While this is going on, the Board of Finance has already held three budget workshops to discuss the mill rate and the possibility of implementing new policy that, if approved, would not take affect during this current budget.
It takes into account certain “levers” that indicate how much money will be available for spending on general government operations, BOE operations, capital projects and debt service. Those levers include: state grant revenue, town fees and investment interest, debt service expense, grand list growth, and the BOF’s agreement on a responsible increase to the mill rate.
“So the big change in the process is to have the BOF go first in the budget process and set an expectation which sets the tone for the budget,” said BOF chair John Leary (R). “In the past, the town and BOE submitted the budgets and the BOF then looked at revenue and ultimately backed into the tax increase. This process led to cuts in requests.”
“By setting the expectations, we let the BOE and Town Manager know what we are expecting and why,” continued Leary. “By revealing the levers and our assumptions, we offer transparency.”
Leary said the disconnect is that the general government and BOE submit their budgets based on their needs.
“They don’t necessarily, based on their role in the process, look at the financial health of the state, anticipated revenues, grand list growth, excess rainy day fund, debt service and a responsible mill rate increase,” he said. “That’s the responsibility of the BOF. So we are doing the work, up front, with a model and assumptions to set a framework of acceptable spending.”
A formal vote has not been taken on the change in policy yet. The BOF will clean up its document wording and format, include the levers and descriptions, form a conclusion on how much money is available for the 2019 spending budget, and send the document to the Town Manager and Superintendent of Schools and BOE.
The BOF is charged with setting financial policies, so if the concept is approved by the board, it need not be voted on by the Town Council or any other board.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com.