Tolland residents discuss budget approach
By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Tolland - posted Fri., Feb. 25, 2011
On Feb 24, leaders and residents of Tolland gathered at the fire training facility on Merrow Road to brainstorm and give feedback about how to handle the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Town Manager Steven Werbner began the community conversation by saying the town budget is still being prepared, so he could not give any specifics about it. Werbner added that state funding from the Educational Cost Sharing Program will be flat-funded for the next two years, according to Gov. Dannel Malloy's proposals, but there will be some cuts from the federal and state grants, such as the PILOT program for Manufacturing and Machinery and Equipment, and the School Transportation grant – which total around $170,000 for Tolland.
In total, Werbner said, the town is projecting $307,000 less revenue than last year, and $1.1 million less than three years ago. In the past two budget years, Tolland has cut services from the town and education budgets, and seen spending below that of the previous year.
Werbner said that the quality of the remaining services, however, has not diminished.
“Even though you can argue that there should be more money for education,” he said, “or for protective services, or various departments, by any measure, the end result of the product that we produce is pretty darn good. We will find a way to get whatever needs to be done, done.”
Grand list growth, which was at .75 percent for 2010-2011, is expected to rise only to about 1.01 percent next year.
Werbner said the challenge town officials has is to put together a spending plan that serves the entire community, and that keeping services on a similar level will put a strain on the town’s financial ability.
Residents presented their thoughts, questions and suggestions.
“I really don’t believe our budget - combined municipal and school - should exceed much more than what the grand list growth is,” one resident said. “We, as a town, should try to live within that budget, just as families are trying to live within their budgets.”
When asked what the town is doing to increase the grand list, Werbner said the Planning and Zoning Commission is developing plans and regulations for the Village Center project, and two lots are being marketed in the Tolland Business Park, but the amount of develop-able land in Tolland is limited.
“This community won't be able to rely on economic development as the way of funding future expenses,” Werbner said.
The idea of regionalizing services, such as administrators and departments, was suggested.
“That's being investigated across the state,” Werbner said, adding that Tolland already does consolidate some things with other towns, and is looking at other ways in which it makes sense.
“It's where your larger expenses are,” he said. “If you can eliminate an administrator, that's great. It could but back $100,000 in a $40 million budget. It's something.”
One resident wanted to explore assisting families and individuals who can't afford higher taxes, allowing those who can to bear more of the burden.
“I keep hearing that people don't want their taxes to go up because they have a fixed income, are unemployed, etc.,” the woman said. “Are we doing anything to expand programs for those who can't afford the increase, but could still reap the benefits of the 90 percent who are still employed, getting raises every year, and doing well? I don't want to see us limited in expanding our budget because the smaller percentage can't handle it.”
Werbner said there are assistance programs in place, especially for the elderly, but that further assistance would raise taxes further.
“In this economy, it's a very difficult situation,” he said.
Another resident said he is worried when he hears about keeping budgets flat, recognizing that the past few years have been “survival budgets” and not sustainable over multiple years.
“Looking at keeping budgets low,” he said, “I'm concerned for our schools. I'm concerned for our town-side services, and I say to myself, 'What's the answer here? How can we do things differently?’”
He suggested that the town and schools present their budgets based on what they think the town should fund, not what they think will pass, and then allow it to be voted upon, in the hopes of better gauging what town residents want.
“Maybe we need to look at how we're doing things as a town,” he said. “We might find out that people are more willing to step up and fund town services and education than we think.”
Another resident disagreed. “If you have a certain amount of money coming into your household,” he said, “you can only spend that much money. We, as a town, only brought in $400,000 more this year. I would think that we would try to live within our means.”
A joint meeting of the Town Council and Board of Education is set for March 8, and Werbner is scheduled to present the town budget to the council on March 15. The public hearing on the town manager's budget is scheduled for March 29. For more information, visit www.tolland.org.