Unexpected $300,000 gives Salem more budget flexibility

Salem - After meeting last week to prepare the town budget for an April 9 public hearing, Board of Finance members discovered that they didn't need to trim the 2014-15 budget to the extent they had anticipated.

During Thursday's meeting, First Selectman Kevin Lyden discovered that the town's debt payments were accounted for twice in the budget - meaning the town's expenses were $300,000 less than expected.

Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher said he will determine the final figure for the proposed budget after meeting with the town treasurer today, and the board will set the tax rate after the public hearing.

Although final figures aren't available, the unanticipated $300,000 adds a bit of flexibility to the town's budgeting process.

They had estimated a 2- to 3-mill tax rate increase and prepared for a long night of ruthless cuts, asking representatives from boards and commissions to attend the meeting in case their budgets were impacted. But after two hours of scouring the budget and discussing the minutiae of state grants and bond payments, the board discovered the mistake and was able to restore some of the recently reduced line items.

Still, the board made some adjustments Thursday. They decreased funding for a school security upgrade and delayed a few public works improvements.

Perhaps more telling was what they didn't cut: maintenance budgets, which Public Works Director Don Bourdeau said would catch up with the town eventually if reduced, and an unusually high $2,500 for the Economic Development Commission, which board members said they hope will be used to improve the town's economy.

After some consideration, they also left the library's budget untouched, preserving what Lyden called Salem's "surrogate community center."

The board also approved a request from Lyden for a $50,000 study of the efficiency of town's school district.

"It's important for our education system to have an outside set of eyes," said Lyden, who said the idea for study came after the town paid for a similar study of its emergency services, a department that only constitutes 5 percent of the town's budget.

Education, meanwhile, makes up 73 percent of Salem's budget, said Lyden.

And it poses a large burden on the taxpayers that's unlikely to be relieved by business growth. To reduce the tax rate by 1 mill, Salem would need 12 more strip malls like the one at the Four Corners containing Dunkin' Donuts, said Lyden.

The first selectman told the board that he isn't familiar with other towns conducting such a study of the school district, but that "this would be a common thing to do in business."

Lyden brought the proposal to the Board of Finance with the unanimous approval of the Board of Selectmen and the endorsement of Superintendent Joseph Onofrio.

The Board of Finance unanimously approved the request. With declining enrollment and increasing costs at Salem School, "we clearly have to do something differently," said Butcher.

The Board of Finance will consider public comments on the budget at the April 9 hearing, which will be held at Salem School at 7 p.m. In response to the public's comments, the board can either increase or decrease the budget. Then the budget goes to a town meeting, after which the board can only decrease it.

The education budget proposal, which the finance board reduced by about $300,000, has been a touchy subject for town officials this year, with educators arguing that they will need to make "drastic" cuts and Board of Finance members tentatively reviving an old argument: that Salem School spends too much on administration.

"All the cuts you made affected the kids," Board of Finance Clerk George Householder told school board officials Thursday, arguing that they should begin cutting from the top.

Householder said district-level costs have increased about 26 percent in the past four or five years despite the superintendent position becoming part-time. School officials argued that the increase is unrelated to administration and largely caused by the school nurse's salary being accounted for under the central office budget.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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