A 4.25% mill rate increase sunk the $80.5 million town budget proposal in the first referendum vote on April 2, and now First Selectman Steve Vavrek is tasked with deciding what request to put out on April 23.
The second referendum will also have a ballot question on $3.8 million in bonding for the Honeywell projects to make town schools buildings more energy efficient. The Citizens Audit Committee petitioned it to the referendum claiming the funding was not included in the budget, while Vavrek says it is.
On Wednesday night, Vavrek held a joint meeting with the Town Council, Board of Education and Board of Finance at Masuk High School to gain input on the budget. Some residents also spoke at the event, which was televised live on Channel 17.
"April 23 is going to be a huge day in Monroe," Vavrek said of the two ballot questions.
Vavrek and Supt. of Schools James Agostine both expressed strong support of their budgets. Members of the town's boards joined them, though some suggested areas to cut in response to the last referendum defeat.
Agostine said the school district did not play the game of coming in with a high request to have something approved in the middle, adding any significant cut will hurt programs. Board of Education member Mark Antinozzi called it an "absolutely lean, bare bone, no blood budget."
Board of Finance Dir. Mark Reed said to significantly reduce the mill rate from say a 4.24 to a 2% increase, there would have to be a $1.5 million reduction.
"Read my lips: It would cause significant damage," Reed said.
What to Cut?
Town Council Vice Chairwoman Deborah Heim made a statement on behalf of the Republican majority, encouraging Vavrek to look at the "fully vetted" cuts the council had made during its workshop that the Board of Finance later restored.
"By restoring the cuts we made in our workshops, we think voters can pass a budget," she said.
Councilman Frank Lieto said the council made almost a half a million dollars worth of cuts and that the Board of Finance restored most of it, some for good reasons and some for other reasons.
But Reed said the finance board's revisions reduced the budget proposal by over $700,000 from the one it received, so he cautioned Vavrek to be careful when making any cuts.
Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin, a Democrat, read a statement as the minority leader on the council.
"We support fully, many aspects of this budget, public safety concerns, increases to fire safety and educational enhancements to cite a few," Martin said, "but we strongly feel that the voters have spoken and in our opinion a non-voter is a no vote, so reducations in the bottom line have to be made.
"We hope the first selectman will make every effort to keep key educational proponents intact, especially in regard to full time kindergarten ... we suggest the first selectman try to keep his revisions targeted to areas that in the past have received the greatest percentage increases within town hall."
An Officer in Every School
On the town side, Vavrek said funding for three school resource officers (SROs) and measures to improve security at Monroe's schools are big cost drivers that are "non-negotiable."
The first selectman showed past mill rate increases on a screen that were comparable to the 4.25% voters just defeated. He said the town has made infrastructure improvements with smaller increases over the last two years with maintenance of town roads and the police station building project among them.
Vavrek also spoke in favor of full-day kindergarten for the Board of Education's budget.
Strong Support for Education
Agostine said the Board of Education has held down costs through union negotiations and by being self insured. Capping the town's contribution to teachers' retiree health benefits will save over $6 million for future generations, he said. The superintendent said he believes an approval of the Honeywell contract will lead to more cost savings.
Even with flat budgets, Agostine said increases in rates for things like utilities and transportation continue to drive costs upward. He said the original budget proposal for Monroe Public Schools amounted to a 3.99% spending increase before working with the Board of Finance helped to bring it down to a 1.75% request.
Antinozzi said there are costs the school district has no control over. For instance, when an arbiter says teachers must get raises or the state mandates the Common Core Standards, it has to comply.
Full day kindergarten is seen an important component to meet the new standards.
Kelly Plunkett, a school board member, said a number of people are under the false impression that full day kindergarten is a convenience for parents who save on day care. And fellow board member, Dr. Alan Vaglivelo, has heard people say all the children do is spend the day coloring and drawing.
"It's not true anymore," he said, adding children are reading and writing on a first grade level, and when they reach the first grade they are expected to read at a second grade level.
Board of Education Chairman Darrell Trump ran off polling results showing parents support what the schools are doing. He said 84% supported the budget request, 91% the security initiatives, 95% thought it is important to maintain class sizes and 77% support having an SRO in every school.
Jeff Guttman, a school board member, said, "I wouldn't reduce the education budget at all, because we have what we need to make it work."