Finance board hosts first remote budget workshop amid coronavirus pandemic

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MONROE, Conn. — Board of Finance Chairman Michael Manjos asked participants dialed into a budget workshop to acknowledge their presence one-by-one, before the start of the town’s first remote meeting on the computer program, GoToMeeting, Thursday evening.

Enough positive replies from board members made for a quorum and Steve Kirsch managed to show up on video. It was yet another example of how life has changed since Monroe residents joined the rest of the country in social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s only been a week since we met, but obviously the world is changing hourly,” Manjos said.

The total $91.5 million town budget proposal for fiscal year 2020-21 carries a projected 2.6 percent tax increase. It includes $59.5 million for education and $31.9 million for town services. Currently, the proposal represents a 4.01 percent spending increase for Monroe’s schools and 0.6 percent for town services.

First Selectman Ken Kellogg said Town Attorney Frank Lieto helped him to interpret Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order requiring a municipality’s “budget-making authority” to approve town budgets and set the tax rates.

Kellogg said he is now working with Lieto on a resolution for the Town Council to vote on to authorize the Board of Finance to fulfill that role.

In case anyone is concerned that the governor’s order will give the Board of Finance expanded powers, enabling it to make specific adjustments to line items in the Board of Education budget, Kellogg said it does not.

Lamont also extended the deadline for budgets to be adopted by one month. Because there is more time to wait for solid numbers to come in, and there is no concern over voters defeating a budget at referendum, the town will take its time to review the $91.5 million budget proposal.

Next week’s budget workshop has been canceled and the Board of Finance will meet again on Thursday, April 9.

Public input

The extended budget approval process will allow residents more time to submit questions, comments and concerns to the Board of Finance before the final budget vote. Kellogg said IT will create a generic email address for people to use.

The first selectman and Manjos told finance board members they can respond to voters’ emails if they choose to, but cautioned against hitting “reply all,” because that would make messages go to other board members and constitute a board meeting, according to the Freedom of Information Act.

Townspeople will also have an opportunity to speak and submit comments for a budget hearing, which will be held remotely.

Manjos said the Board of Finance will soon finalize dates, outlining the budget process.

On Thursday, he suggested pushing a joint meeting with the Town Council on the capital plan out one month.

“I don’t see a need for a capital meeting at this point, because I’m not of the mind of green lighting capital projects right now, until there is more certainty,” Manjos said.

Of the board’s message to the town, member Rebecca O’Donnell, said, “we’re not saying no. We just want to make sure it’s the right time.”

The global pandemic has ground the U.S. economy to a halt and the state of Connecticut will be spending more money for measures to protect the public’s health.

Manjos said he is concerned over how this will effect revenue for Monroe’s budget. For instance, it may lead to reductions in state funding and a lower tax collection rate as some residents struggle financially.

With interest rates slashed to zero, Manjos said the town’s revenue from interest will also take a hit.

Manjos wants modeling done for different scenarios, showing how potential reductions in all of the town’s revenue streams can affect the budget. The board asked Kellogg to come up with a report.

Final numbers, savings

Among the numbers Manjos hopes are finalized before the budget vote is the percentage cost increase in the state health insurance plan town and education employees are enrolled in.

The Board of Finance will be meeting with the Board of Education again before the budget vote, in hopes of getting more solid numbers on special education costs and savings from closing the schools.

Finance Director Ronald Bunovsky said Monroe public schools is still going over its contracts to see what money can be saved.

In addition to saving money on transportation with the schools closed and students and teachers doing distance learning, Bunovsky said the district will save on other costs, such as running the buildings.

“There will be some costs with distance learning, but there will be a net savings,” he said. “How much of it depends on if we come back at all.”

‘Monroe is strong’

O’Donnell said she had wondered about any lessons learned from the 2008 recession, before thinking, “but it’s such a different landscape now.”

Manjos said people believe the stock market will come back once the worst of the pandemic is over. “I’ve been trying to dissuade panic and people from thinking we have to do a lot now,” he said.

On a night when Tax Collector Deborah Heim reported the town is in good financial shape to finish the current fiscal year, Manjos said Monroe does not have a fiscal crisis, the schools are doing okay and the police are good.

He expressed optimism that things will return to normal within a few months. “Just making sure everything is functioning and people are safe, that’s the most important thing at this point,” Manjos said. “Town Hall seems to be handling what it can handle.”

“Far fewer people are here at Town Hall,” Kellogg said. “There is no public access to the building. Things are getting processed. A lot of my work is focusing on our public safety. We’re doing a lot of planning with Emergency Management, police, fire and EMS.”

Though the town does not have any “dramatic costs” from COVID-19, Kellogg said town officials are tracking everything in the event Monroe can be eligible for reimbursement.

“Monroe is strong,” O’Donnell said. “We’ll be all right.”

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