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Selectmen approve 1.08% gross budget hike

budget_chartThe Weston Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to approve the 2013-14 town, debt service, and capital budgets, and to recommend a $100,000 decrease in the proposed school budget.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, after making a few slight revisions to First Selectman Gayle Weinstein’s original proposal, the board voted to approve the following:

• Town operating budget: $11,690,441 (a 3.32% increase from the current budget).

• Town capital budget: $733,728 (a 36.03% decrease).

• School capital budget: $395,000 (a 16% decrease).

• Town debt service: $694,124 (a 2.55% increase).

• School debt service: $5,860,508 (a 4.55% decrease).

The selectmen also voted unanimously to recommend to the Board of Finance a $46,193,668 school operating budget. That is $100,000 less than the school board is requesting. The school board’s request represents a 1.55% increase from the current budget; the selectmen’s recommendation represents a 1.31% increase.

The Board of Selectmen may recommend a dollar amount only if it chooses to recommend a budget that is different from the school board’s proposal. While the finance board has the power to cut or increase the school budget that will be sent to voters, it is up to the school board to decide how the money ultimately approved is spent.

Reduction suggestions

The selectmen, however, had some suggestions for where $100,000 could be trimmed from the school operating budget. These include eliminating a second contingency teacher, $30,000 for drug and alcohol counseling, $10,000 for new flat screen TVs for the middle school, and reviewing the equipment and software needs for administrators.

First Selectman Weinstein said she does not believe the schools need to budget for two contingency teachers, considering enrollment is declining. However, she said she was only comfortable “pulling out a contingency teacher” if the other selectmen would “guarantee” that if the school district determines later the extra teacher is needed, they will vote to appropriate the necessary supplemental funds.

The two selectmen agreed. David Muller said he was “very supportive,” since supplemental appropriations are for unanticipated expenses. “Taxing for an unknown need is not the way to go,” he said.

Selectman Dennis Tracey said he also agrees it is unnecessary to budget for two contingency teachers.

Town_expenditures_chartAs for the drug and alcohol counseling expense, Ms. Weinstein said she believes the town offers adequate services for families — or can point people in the right direction — in these areas. In addition, the board and school district should be looking at what is the responsibility of the schools to offer these types of programs versus what is the responsibility of parents, she said.

“The other thing I just cannot accept” is $10,000 for new flat screen TVs at the middle school, Ms. Weinstein said.

“Things like that, I don’t think have an impact on the academic excellence of the schools,” Ms. Weinstein said.

She also expressed dismay that the schools’ technology budget for the current year is $65,000 over what had been allocated in the 2012-13 budget. Much of the costs were for software for administration, not specifically for student use, she said.

Paid parents

Selectman Muller was not happy to discover that $45,000 being allocated in the school budget for stipends is being paid to parents who help in the theater arts program.

While administrators had not been able to get specific numbers regarding how much of that amount is paid to staff members and how much goes to parents, Phil Schaefer, school board chairman, acknowledged that consistency was harder to come by when the schools relied on volunteers; paying people is meant to alleviate that, he said.

Ken Craw, assistant superintendent, said that at the middle school, all the theater positions are filled by staff. At the high school, there are some parents who fill in the gaps, but “we always prefer to have teachers [fill the positions] when possible,” he said.

Mr. Muller said he fully supports paying staff members who are asked to take on extra duties, but there are “oodles of activities” where parents are spending hundreds of hours volunteering. “I see no reason why theater arts should be treated differently,” he said.

Mr. Tracey agreed there is “an equity issue,” but he said it should be considered for next year, rather than something tackled in the current budget discussion.

Capital reduction

The selectmen and the school board agreed that $52,000 for new lighting for the middle school library would be eliminated from the school capital budget request. The $395,000 school capital request now represents a 16% decrease from the current year, compared with the 4.94% decrease originally requested.

First Selectman Weinstein said the recommendations to lower the school budget requests were made because the selectmen felt “the increase in the budget was substantial enough to cover new initiatives plus some money we felt wasn’t necessary. I don’t think they did a full and thorough review of wants and needs,” she said.

“I feel like every year they are looking for the new new thing. Given the financial duress we’ve been experiencing, do we really need to do that every year?” Ms. Weinstein said.

Mr. Tracey said he appreciates that the school budget request came in lower than those of many neighboring districts, but he said that Weston taxpayers “deserve” a written plan detailing how the schools are going to identify and reduce expenses, given the trend of declining enrollment in town.

“Without a plan, I think the community is rightfully concerned that we are not taking it seriously,” Mr. Tracey said.

Mr. Muller said he would like to see — before the budget public hearing — a realistic accounting of what “pain” the district would face if certain cuts to the request were made.

Town budget changes

The Board of Selectmen also made several changes to the first selectman’s original budget request before voting.

Budgets for the following departments were amended:

Tax Collector ($100,534 approved). The tax collector position is being reduced from full-time to 80% time, and the assistant tax collector will work 37 weeks a year instead of 39.

The office will still be staffed during the same hours, with one person during slower months and both during the busier tax season.

Land Use ($343,189 approved). Ms. Weinstein said this year, she has combined Planning and Zoning, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation, and the Building Department into one “land use” budget category. “It’s really how they operate already,” she said, and she is “hoping for greater efficiencies.”

Ms. Weinstein recommended reducing the conservation planner from four days a week to three, resulting in a savings of about $17,600.

Youth Services ($41,834 approved). This category was increased so the new youth services director can work four days a week instead of three.

Senior Services ($114,556 approved). A number of people spoke in favor of increasing the hours worked for the director and programming director.

Former First Selectman Woody Bliss said of the center, “We have an incredible gem, and this thing is growing.” He said it also makes good economic sense to continue to make improvements to the senior center — if seniors sell their homes, they are generally bought by people with young kids, which puts more of a strain on the schools and town services, Mr. Bliss said.

Fire Department. While the bottom line for this department was not changed, a proposal to allocate one lump sum — a single “pot of money” — was changed back to reflect line item requests from the department.

The town contributes about 63% of what the volunteer fire department expects as its total expenses. Ms. Weinstein said that every year, the department ends up using the money where it’s needed, so she suggested approving a block allocation.

Mr. Tracey said, “I’ve gotta tell you, I don’t like the ‘pot of money’ approach. I don’t like it at all.” He wanted to see more accountability and transparency.

The board agreed it should re-examine the way in which the town decides how much to give to the Fire Department. “I think there’s a lack of discipline in the way we approach this budget,” Mr. Tracey said.

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