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What You Really Need To Know About The Budget Referendum

Last night, the Board of Finance proposed a budget missed out on identifying what's wrong with proposals advanced by the Board of Education and Town Council.

For many months now, the Board of Education and the Town Council have been working diligently on coming up with budget proposals that many of us thought were reasonable, sensible, and met the needs of our growing community.

(To those who have been out of the loop, go look at the documents first on their websites here and here; no debating the merits of the budgets without understanding them.)

In an hour or so last night, without much substantive deliberation or debate on the budget itself, the Board of Finance threw out that work. 

For those that missed it, approved a tax rate increase of 2.45 percent that will set the budget that voters will have to consider next month, according to Avon Patch. It is lower than the budgets proposed by Board of Education and Town Council, who will now be tasked with cutting $444,580 from their combined budget requests.

That may be oversimplifying things, but not by much. It makes you wonder why we make the Board of Education and Town Council go through this budget charade each year. (It was an outcome .)

Two years ago, Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Harrison said that the town history showed that residents tend to support no more than a 3 percent tax increase, according to The Hartford Courant. That "3-percent" threshold was viewed as a holy grail of what was "reasonable" in town. 

Voters proved him wrong. Indeed, in light of the growth in town which, at that time, included a high school addition, voters  – in a record turnout – overwhelmingly supported a 4.4 percent increase, The Hartford Courant reported. Did people like it? No. But we knew what the town needed.

Now, a new threshold has been set.  It has to be 2.45 percent. Why? Because, according to some on the BOF, everyone agreed that was a good number last year and , based on Harrison's interview with Avon Patch.

How about we start looking at the budget proposals themselves?

Many of us in Avon seemed to think that the proposals were fair.  Mr. Harrison had to concede on Monday that for the first time since he was elected about the budget, he told Avon Patch.  And a mere 70 people showed up at the budget public hearing – many of them the usual suspects either for or against the budget, according to The Hartford Courant.

That collective silence would be interpreted by most as a sign that there was a wide consensus that the budgets were reasonable in light of the needs of community. 

And a quick review of the budgets shows support for that.  The notion that Avon overspends on its teachers and on its schools is belied by the numbers.  Look for yourself: Avon spends significantly less per kid than West Hartford, Farmington and Simsbury, according to the school board budget proposal.

And this year, the school proposed a 2.92 percent spending increase, in line with the statewide average.  (Again, don't take my word for it, look at all the budget documents here.)

Why increase it at all? Two big reasons: Unfunded state mandates and agreements that the town already approved. It's not as though we didn't know these increases weren't coming.  

All told, about 93 percent of the proposed increase set forth by the schools was non-discretionary – meaning the town is obligated to pay these increases in services, salaries, benefits, etc. no matter what, according school board slides about the budget.

But the schools aren't alone. Just look at that new library that will be opening later this month.  It won't pay for itself.  So, the town proposed a 2.91 percent increase in the operating budget, according to the budget message that Town Manager Brandon Robertson wrote to the Board of Finance in March.

Our capital improvement plan – items that benefit the town collectively – is the biggest driver in the budget. (And as for the idea that our our taxes in Avon are mostly higher than comparable towns, they're not, according to the state Office of Policy and Management website.)

Notably, I have not seen one Board of Finance member identify publicly a specific area that he or she believes should be cut.  Reduce the hours of the Senior Center? Cut back further on the hours of the library or transfer station? Have the schools make do with computers that are running outdated Windows XP? Not replace an aging fire engine?

BOF members will surely protest and say that is not their job to make revisions to the budget; its just their role to set the tax rate. But that's a false argument.  The Town Charter requires the Board of Finance to make revisions to the "budget" itself it deems "desireable".  (Sec. 9.4(b) of the Town Charter if you're following at home.) Notably, the relevant section says nothing about setting the tax rate when preparing the budget for a vote. 

In other words, if the BOF believes the budgets are too high, it should do more than merely looking at the resulting tax rate from the budget. 

Now, let's be clear: Do I want our taxes to increase? No.  But I also want Avon to continue to meet the needs of our seniors, kids and everyone in between, who moved to town presumably for the resources we have.  And I also trust our Town Council and Board of Education members to make sensible decisions for us. If their proposals are filled with overspending, then let's have that debate. This is not about being in favor tax increases; it's making sure the process we get there is reasonable.

It's too late for this year, but hopefully, we can begin a discussion in town about how the Board of Finance should accomplish what is set forth in our Town Charter.  I'd start with a simple proposition: If the budgets proposed are too high, then the BOF should identify the areas that we're overspending on. Let's debate the merits of the proposals.   

Setting our budgets based merely on the tax rate or merely on the "conscience" of a BOF member is not what the town charter seems to provide.  And it is certainly not what the town needs. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Chris Carroll April 13, 2012 at 12:33 AM
Well put, Dan! Thanks for summing it up so well.
R. Piper April 13, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Excellent. Thanks for articulating this important issue so well. Have you ever considered running for the BOF? What a breath of fresh air you would be!
Jessie Sawyer April 13, 2012 at 09:20 PM
R. Piper, when this comment first came up in my queue I thought it was on my budget article and I thought, "Well, that's a very kind suggestion, but I'm not an Avon resident. Wow, what a tough job it would be to be on a finance board." And then I saw it was for Dan and I was relieved. Much better Dan than me. :) Thanks for posting this blog, Dan! -Jessie Sawyer Editor, Avon Patch
Julie April 14, 2012 at 01:33 AM
Great post Dan. Thank you. The budgets were incredibly lean and put forth in good faith. It is a disgrace that they were cut just to cut. Hopefully in future elections people will vote for BOF candidates that will allow the residents to vote on budgets as proposed rather than as chopped.
Nancy usich April 15, 2012 at 12:32 PM
Wonderful article, Dan! So well explained. What is the date for the next election?

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