Editorial: A good start to budget season

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Maybe we’re reading too much into it, but we could almost feel the defensiveness in his voice when Southington superintendent Timothy Connellan presented his budget proposal at the Jan. 9 board of education meeting. Connellan carefully hammered home the point that he has a responsibility to the schools and the students. He lauded the value of the school system to the community. He pointed out the rising costs, the fixed costs, and the contractual constraints in the budget process. Then, as if anticipating a public outcry or even a mob with pitchforks, he lowered the boom. A 3.1% increase is necessary for the 2020-21 school year, Connellan said to the board of education.

This year is an interesting one for Southington budgets—even for the press to cover. Since the board of finance first laid down the gauntlet after Election Day when they voted to set a guidance goal—a hard number for town officials—we’ve been waiting to exhale. We can only imagine the pressure Southington’s superintendent felt when he presented that 3.11% increase. After all, the BOF’s number was 1.5%.

Timothy F. Connellan, Superintendent of Schools
200 North Main Street, Southington, CT 06489
Phone (860) 628-3202 Fax (860) 628-3205

Was Connellan’s number too high? We’re not experts but it doesn’t appear so. It’s a little unclear since the BOF guideline is linked to the mill rate, and some factors are still unknown—such as an increase to the grand list and the recent property revaluation—but it looks like Connellan’s proposal might fall well within the BOF guidelines. Last year, the BOE budget increased 3.13% (the overall budget increased 2.64%), but the mill rate increased just 0.16 (0.5%). Based on that, it’s reasonable to think that this 3.1% increase would not require more than a 1.5% mill rate hike.

Who knows? It might even be possible  that a reasonable budget might be reached without any mill rate hike, depending on how the rest of the process goes. As these new procedures get hammered out and perfected over the next few years, we can see the possibility for rubber stamped budgets on the back end because of all the hard work and guidance on the front end. That would be something special.

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In fact, it looks like the Southington superintendent presented one of his most fiscally responsible bottom lines in recent memory. Last year, on the heels of a state financial crisis and a 9.76% increase for the schools in 2018-19, Connellan boldly proposed a 4.58% increase (which was rubber stamped by the BOE). That request sparked a heated public debate and left other boards scrambling to trim the school budget by $1.5 million before it finally passed.

This “taking a hatchet to the budget” approach is the biggest reason why we are hopeful about the BOF taking a more proactive role. Nobody wins when it takes a hatchet to pass a town budget. If the workshops fine tune any issues that might come up, we can’t imagine that huge cuts or arguments will be this year’s theme, but we’ll leave that to the BOF, the town’s “budget-making authority” per the charter.

This year’s 3.1% starting point is right in line with the final results from previous years. In fact, it’s a smaller increase than six of the last 12 school budgets. That has us hopeful that this BOF experiment might be tapping into something useful. We can’t wait to see how the rest of the budget talks unfold.

Of course, it’s a little early for a ticker tape parade or a victory lap. A lot more work needs to be done before the ink will dry on this budget. The town still hasn’t received the general government proposal or the grand list numbers, but this was a positive start.

Go ahead, Connellan. We think it’s okay to exhale.

To comment on this editorial or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at Editor@SouthingtonObserver.com.