Editor's Note: Supt. of Schools James Agostine's presentation will be written about in a second budget article.
As many families struggle to make ends meet, First Selectman Steve Vavrek agrees everyone would like to see no increase in their property tax bills. However, if the deteriorating conditions of town buildings, vehicles, equipment and roads are not addressed, Vavrek says it will cost Monroe residents a lot more when things break down.
Infrastructure needs and demand for school resource officers (SROs) following the tragic school shooting in Sandy Hook have factored into a request for an $81.7 million budget with a 3.98% spending increase. The first selectman said it is too preliminary because no mill rate has been set, but a 5.24% tax hike would be needed to fund the proposal.
The Town Council and Board of Finance will review the budget proposal and may make cuts before the Town Meeting and referendum vote.
Vavrek presented his budget proposal for fiscal year 2013-14 in the Media Center of Masuk High School on Monday night.
"We need to balance services and infrastructure needs and this budget does that," he said. "We do have to continue to invest in Monroe."
Masuk and Jockey Hollow Middle School have an SRO and Police Chief John Salvatore is asking for three new police officers who can be trained as SROs, enabling Monroe to have an SRO in all of its public schools.
"Some people would say we're overreacting," Vavrek said. "But you can't tell that to a kid who has to go to school everyday."
Monroe has had a police presence at every school in town since the Sandy Hook tragedy and has worked with Supt. of Schools James Agostine on ways to improve school security.
Agostine said the security measures focus on an improved buzz in system at the schools, higher quality video surveillance, improvements in policies and procedures and a police presence.
"I thank the first selectman and the chief," Agostine said.
The first selectman shifted $300,000 for school security upgrades from the Board of Education's budget proposal to the municipal side of the ledger. "This is not just an education issue," Vavrek said.
Municipal expenditures would increase from $19,142,174 to $20,368,044 or by 6.4% and debt service from $5,586,028 to 5,879,872 or by 5.26%. The Board of Education budget — not counting grants — would go from $51,434,739 to $53,048,399 for a 3.14% increase.
Town revenue from permits and fees, etc., is estimated to fall by 2.18% from $8,971,304 to $8,775,391.
Vavrek expects total revenue to be reduced by $489,050 due to the local economy and anticipated lower funding from the state.
Vavrek touted a five year capital plan that includes $2.2 million in bonding for Fawn Hollow Elementary School's roof in 2013-14. Agostine said the roof is in extremely poor condition.
The plan also calls for repairing Masuk's roof the following year, and then Stepney Elementary School's in 2015-16.
The town and school district are upgrading to Munis financial management software and Monroe Town Hall will install fiber optics for improved phone and Internet service.
The first selectman said there will be more funding for senior center programs and $368,159 would be used to lease new trucks for the Department of Public Works.
Vavrek praised the DPW for plowing all town roads following the weekend blizzard before many surrounding towns got to all of theirs, but noted how the aging fleet of plow trucks posed a constant challenge.
The first selectman said one truck got stuck on Webb Circle and lost its plow when it was freed, leading to some calls from residents wondering why a town truck was driving around without a plow. Another truck that stalled had to be towed.
During a public comment session, Steve Kirsch asked about the status of contract negotiations with Honeywell, a private firm offering to do millions of dollars worth of projects to improve the energy efficiency of all town and school buildings and to pay for it all through the savings on utility bills.
"The status will be discussed this week," Vavrek said. "There are major questions about finances."
He said the town has spoken with Yankee Gas Co. and CL&P and the savings are available, "it's just a matter of who does it and when."
Steve Schapiro asked about the town's legal budget going over by $582,000 this year. Vavrek admitted it was a bad year for legal fees, but stressed that it is not something that can be predicted with certainty.
Schapiro also asked why, after saving around $240,000 in insurance costs this year, the town is asking for a $260,000 increase over what was budgeted. He said town officials "budget on a budget on a budget" without looking at actual spending.