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COMMENTARY: Room for reductions in Weston budgets

weston-typewritier-commentaOne of the primary goals of Weston for Fiscal Responsibility (WFFR) is to keep you informed as to what’s happening in our town regarding fiscal matters.

The budget process is in full swing.

After reviewing the budget requests and attending numerous Board of Education (BOE), Selectmen (BOS), and Finance (BOF) meetings, we wanted to share what we read, heard, saw and believe.

Overall, we’re comfortable with the budget process used by the superintendent of schools and the BOS. The budgets appear generally to make sense, but do offer additional opportunities for reduction.

The BOS suggested reducing the BOE budget by $100,000.

Here are some highlights.

School Budget

The BOE budget is $46,293,668; an increase of 1.55%. This increase is below other towns in the surrounding area (that’s a positive).

However, one must look at the actual dollars spent. When we compare our expenditures, Weston is on the high side, as a result of budget increases in past years that exceeded our comparison districts.

BOS Budget

If you look at the operating budget, it’s a 3.3% increase. Combine that with the capital budget, and it’s actually a 0.3% decrease. The question is why is the capital budget so low and the operating budget so high?

The capital budget is non-recurring, whereas the operating budget is ongoing and any increase this year raises the basis for following years. With regard to the capital budget, which is used for new acquisitions and replacement of worn out items such as roofs, reducing the capital expenditures can lead to significant increases in future years or the bonding of capital expenses, a move, which we oppose. We applaud the use of sinking funds to spread the capital cost over the life of the asset.

BOS Review of BOE Budget

The first selectman did a good job highlighting the costs of the BOE budget and suggested they reduce their budget by $100,000. After hearing the arguments it seems very doable. That’s a 0.22% cut; less than one quarter of one percent.

Selectman David Muller said continued excessively high per pupil costs when factoring in the continued declining enrollment is a real concern. Weston has the 13th highest cost per pupil state-wide at $18,141/student. The 12 districts with higher expenditures/pupil had an average student enrollment of 227 students compared to Weston’s 2,486.

WFFR’s Thinking

Despite the fact that our increases look good when compared to our neighboring towns, we believe there are opportunities for the BOF to further reduce the proposed budgets.

Dr. Palmer is doing a good job balancing “wants vs. needs.” She’s investing in a number of areas and reducing others.

Weston’s housing values are not growing as fast as our neighboring towns. Let’s all agree that Weston has great schools. So do our neighboring towns. Maybe our high tax rate is keeping new people away. Maybe a more favorable tax base would attract more people with children.

When many of us moved to Weston, we looked for a rural community with good schools and two-acre zoning. From what we now see, working parents are looking for good schools, easy access to highways, close-in shopping and amenities. Unfortunately, Weston is lacking in some of these “wants.”

Combine that with higher taxes than our neighboring towns and you might understand why our enrollment is declining at an alarming rate.

The NESDEC study (commissioned by the BOE), suggests enrollment is projected to decline to 1998 levels by 2017. If this happens and we do not control our tax increases, it will have a detrimental effect on our housing values as well as our educational system. Weston will become a hard sell to any prospective buyer considering moving to Weston.

Let us be honest. We are not wanting for anything. After attending the BOE workshops and the BOS meeting, many of us walked away with a comfortable belief that money could be cut from the BOE budget without affecting our children’s learning.

If we take the BOS request for the $100,000 reduction to the BOE budget, and translate it into a person’s individual earnings, it would be as follows: If a person makes $100,000 year and has to reduce their spending by a comparable amount (0.21645%), it would amount to $216.45. We are not suggesting this is the right amount to cut, but to the PTO parents who are up in arms and protesting a cut of this size, their alarm is essentially without merit.

In Conclusion

We hope WFFR has helped answer some of your questions and may have raised a few new ones. WFFR was the driving force in the referendum and supported its inclusion in our revised charter. Since the referendum was enacted, the rate of tax increases has declined significantly.

By hearing from all of us in the form of a “secret ballot,” our elected officials will know the course to chart when it comes to affordable, quality education and other town services.

We encourage you to vote on May 2.

WFFR is a non-partisan grassroots watchdog group which advocates for cost containment while maintaining excellent town services and schools. Comments, questions or concerns may be directed to wffr@att.net.

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