It’s been over two weeks since the Nov. 13 board of finance meeting, and the best way to summarize it is that the BOF laid down the gauntlet for other town boards. No, we’re not talking about their decision to change the BOF’s role in the budget process. No, we’re not talking about the number they set as a financial goal for the board of education and the town council budgets. We’re talking about the standard they set for arriving at difficult votes while avoiding controversy. The gauntlet has been thrown, and we were blown away.
The issue was a strategy discussion about the 2020-21 budget. The BOF was voting to change their role in the town’s budget process from reactive to proactive. As reporters, we are usually looking to answer three critical questions when we’re reporting these sorts of stories, and this meeting checked all the boxes: 1) What is the actual problem that needs to be fixed? 2) Can it be fixed? and 3) Should it be fixed?
The solution was easy enough. The BOF was considering the need to set a budget target before the town manager and superintendent present their budgets, but we were impressed at the thoughtful, open discussion that occurred before the vote. The BOF was ready because they had already held years of workshops to explore aspects of this issue in depth. The Nov. 13 discussion was focused on outlining the problem and debating whether a solution should be attempted at this time.
It was almost impossible to tell if it was a Democrat or a Republican during the discussion. Each board member contributed questions:
- Is it the business of the BOF to give guidance?
- What form would that guidance take?
- How do we measure a good versus a bad budget season?
- Could a proactive approach help make the final approval process easier with less controversy?
- Is there a potential problem that could be caused by setting a goal when there are a lot of assumptions still unknown, such as state funding, grand list growth, unforeseen problems, and more?
- Should this be done now or next year?
- Will a change of process cause conflicts with the mandates of other boards or officials?
We were so happy to see that the BOF included the two that will be most affected—the town manager and the school superintendent.
The discussion left the board with its first significant vote of the 2019-21 term: Should the town set guidance, on an overall town basis, which takes into account the general government and the BOE? This motion passed, 4-2.
With a 4-2 Republican majority, a 4-2 decision sends up red flags, but this is another reason we were so impressed. Unlike most split votes on the council, this one wasn’t decided along party lines. Unlike most BOE votes, this one wasn’t unanimous. The split vote almost seemed part of the process. Susan Zoni (D) and Ed Pocock Jr. (R) voted against the motion—not because of the solution, but because of the timing (the 2020-21 budget season is already underway). And it was bi-partisan. GOP members voted, 3-1; Democrats, 1-1. That’s the gauntlet that was thrown to other town boards.
The next votes set the guidance. The first attempt failed, but the second one passed. Once again, the votes were split.
Whether the number turns out to be too high or too low really doesn’t matter. Whether the process gets tweaked by the end of this budget or changed for next year really doesn’t matter. Of the 169 towns in Connecticut, we doubt if any legislative body—including the General Assembly—has the courage or conviction to try setting proactive goals. It’s not a mandate. It may shift as the budget unfolds, but it is a long-awaited start to a conversation that few communities have even dreamt of undertaking.
If this is the foundation for the 2019-21 BOF term, we can’t wait to see what they build upon it.
To comment on this editorial or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.