Residents express concerns over taxes, schools

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MONROE, CT — Most residents submitting written comments and calling into a remote budget hearing Thursday pleaded with town officials not to raise taxes at a time when many lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic — and some criticized Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders leading to the cancelation of Monroe’s budget referendum, taking the final decision out of voters’ hands.

Not everyone pushed for spending cuts, with some parents worried about the impact more cuts could have on the school system.

Though the current $91.5 million town budget proposal for Monroe’s schools and municipal services carries a 2.6 percent tax increase, First Selectman Ken Kellogg asked the Board of Finance to adopt a budget without a tax increase and the board has been receptive to the idea.

“I would have voted no for the budget referendum. I feel the increase is too high,” Sally Perusse, of Cottage Street, wrote. “Now with what is going on and so many people out of work, myself included, I feel it would be a huge mistake to approve the current budget proposal. If any budget is approved it should be a ZERO INCREASE! Yes, we will get through this, but no one knows when.”

“I sincerely hope our town has more common sense than our federal government has and acts responsibly in regards to this budget,” she added.

During the Board of Finance’s budget hearing, Chairman Michael Manjos read 35 comments that were submitted. Most can be found in the board’s meeting packet on the town website.

Some of those who called in asked questions, but the hearing format was not set up for officials to provide answers. After the hearing, Kellogg said an attempt will be made to track down those residents and provide responses.

Bracing for lost revenue

Before the hearing, Board of Finance members participated in a budget workshop. In addition to cutting expenses to pass a budget without a tax increase, officials must make up for an anticipated loss in revenues.

Many have lost their jobs during the global pandemic and businesses have been hurt. Manjos said some may not come back when this is over. As a result, the collection rate will be down because more people will not be able to pay their property taxes.

The town is also likely to lose revenue from the issuing of building permits and the collection of fees for things like Town Clerk’s Office services and Parks and Recreation programs.

Finance board members went through the budget, department-by-department, estimating the impact on each budget line.

Manjos has proposed using all but $2 million from the undesignated fund balance to make up for the lost revenue and any spending increase. It is estimated the town will use around $8 million of the fund.

There are concerns over allowing the undesignated fund balance to get that low, but Manjos said it is a rainy day fund and this is Monroe’s rainy day.

Finance Director Ron Bunovsky said the bond rating agencies understand what towns are going through with the pandemic and would just want to see a plan to replenish the fund balance.

During Thursday’s hearing, Town Councilwoman Jennifer Aguilar called in to point out that, because it is a revaluation year, even if town taxes remain flat, some individuals will still see an increase because of the change in their property assessment.

Town officials also recognize that next year’s budget process will be even more difficult without being able to offset tax increases by using the undesignated fund balance.

Pleas to fund education

The Board of Finance will have another hearing on May 14, after which members will approve a final town budget and set the tax rate. With no budget referendum this year, several residents are determined that town officials keep them in mind when making their decisions.

“I am hopeful that this global crisis is not used as an excuse to take away our say in our town, to push through an inflated budget and to further increase taxes for the hardworking dedicated members of this community,” Samantha Sims, a resident, wrote in a submitted comment. “I would love to hear your thoughts on this.”

While most worry about higher taxes, others are concerned about a negative impact on the town’s public schools, including Jessica Katuska of Blanket Meadow Road.

The current budget proposal includes $59.5 million for education, a 4.01 percent spending increase over this year. But Superintendent of Schools Jack Zamary’s initial proposal was cut by a total of $1 million to get to the current number.

“The current level of the Board of Education budget is not sufficient and a further cut would be extremely detrimental to our school system,” Katuska said. “Passing the budget at the current level would be the least the Board of Finance could do to keep the education system afloat.”

“Our teachers are doing an amazing job with educating our children through a global pandemic,” she added. “Our kids do NOT need further trauma by reducing funding and causing teacher layoffs. The pandemic will be emotionally traumatizing for the school-aged children in our community.”

Katuska said students need counselors and small class sizes when they eventually return to normal classes.

Officials’ input

Among the written comments, Town Treasurer Patrick O’Hara spoke of the tough bond market.

After mentioning the last recession, O’Hara wrote, “today we face a crisis which is staggeringly different. Just yesterday there were negative yields in US Treasury Bonds, a 2 Trillion dollar stimulus package is about to be approved by Congress and unemployment is expected to hit 30%. I suggest the Board of Finance set investment income for FY 2021 at $0.”

Town Councilman Jason Maur suggested taking advantage of the lower interest rates to invest more in improving the town’s roads, by borrowing $2 million instead of $1 million for the next two years, before reducing the annual expense to $500,000.

Nick Kapoor, who is a Board of Education member and serves on the Monroe Democratic Town Committee, recommended hiring an economic development coordinator to help revive Monroe’s economy. Adding the position was a campaign issue supported by Democrats running for the Town Council last election.

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