Finance board approves a budget with lower taxes

MONROE, CT — Town officials met their goal of avoiding a tax increase, at a time when businesses are struggling and many residents are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, when the Board of Finance unanimously approved a $90 million town budget Tuesday with a slightly lower tax rate.

To achieve this, the board dipped into the undesignated fund balance to use $8 million, used another $500,000 from a designated fund balance and asked unions for teachers and town employees to forgo raises for one year.

However, unions have yet to agree to those terms and if any reject the request, programs, services and positions will have to be cut.

“I do not believe everything we’ve done here is perfect,” Board of Finance Chairman Michael Manjos said. “I know the Board of Education will have some difficult decisions to make. They did get an increase. I know it’s not enough to do what they wanted to do. We’re aware of the challenges.”

The $58.5 million budget approved for Monroe’s public schools represents a 2.19 percent spending increase over the current budget. But it is a far cry from the 5.7 percent increase Superintendent of Schools Jack Zamary requested at the beginning of the process.

Nick Kapoor, a Board of Education member, pointed out how Zamary’s proposal was cut by $500,000 by the school board and another $500,000 by First Selectman Ken Kellogg.

If teachers do not agree to forgo their raises, the district will have to find another $911,000 worth of cuts.

If that happens, Kapoor said the teachers will not be “the bad guys.”

“Board of Finance Chair Manjos is single-handedly handicapping the school system,” Kapoor said in a statement Tuesday. “His ego and personal animosity need to be put aside and the Board of Finance needs to do what is best for our teachers, students, staff, and town. This additional $1 million cut is wholly owned by the Board of Finance who vote for it.”

Anticipating criticism, during Tuesday’s Board of Finance meeting, Manjos said, “we’re all in this together. While the name calling and finger-pointing can be entertaining in this town, I don’t think it’s helpful.”

After the meeting, Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza said, “we have a lot of work to do. At no time is it going to be more important that we all work together.”

If town employees agree to forgo raises, Manjos said that will save another $451,817.

A tough year ahead

On Tuesday, June 2, the Board of Finance will meet again to set the new mill rate. Manjos said it would be 35.48 mills, a 0.29 percent decrease from the current 35.58 mill rate.

Because of the state mandated revaluation, First Selectman Ken Kellogg encourages residents to use an online calculator to figure out their individual tax bills. To access the calculator, click on this link.

Though the mill rate will go down a little in fiscal year 2020-21, because so much of the undesignated fund balance was used to offset a lower tax collection rate, Manjos said taxes will go up next year.

“I want to be clear, for the record, that we are facing a dramatic increase in next year’s budget, because of one time fixes in this one,” he said. “We are spending 10 years’ worth of savings. We built this fund balance methodically and slowly and now we’re spending it in one shot.”

But Manjos also expressed his hope that the economy will bounce back more quickly and the town will be able to rebuild its fund balance.

The $90 million town budget has a 2.49 percent spending increase over the current $87,852,877. It includes $31.5 million for municipal services, which is a 0.27 percent increase.

The Board of Finance also passed a $13.8 million capital budget. Manjos said the only things the town plans to move forward on is the purchase of new Chromebooks to replace old ones in Monroe’s schools, a new lab for Masuk High School and new breathing apparatus for firefighters.

After approving the budget, Manjos thanked fellow Board of Finance members, First Selectman Ken Kellogg, Finance Director Ron Bunovsky, Deputy Finance Director Heidi Meade, Kobza and central office staff for their hard work.

In a year when there will not be a budget referendum due to Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders, Vice Chairman John Ostaszewski and Manjos said they were happy with the number of residents who took the time to participate in two public hearings before the finance board’s vote.

“I want to thank the people in town, who went above in beyond with their input,” said Ostaszewski. “It’s nice to see people take an interest and participate.”

Steve Kirsch, a board member, echoed Manjos and Ostaszewski’s sentiments and thanked Kobza and his team for answering all of their questions throughout the process.

Kirsch expressed an eagerness to embark on the work the board will need to do to help the town and its schools reopen again.

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