By partisan vote, passed Trumbull budget barely changes

For all the party-line votes at the town council’s May 20 budget meeting, the total 2021-22 budget changed just .05 percent after the hour-long session.

The council approved a total allocation of $183,950,614 for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. That is a reduction of $94,553 from the amount approved by the Board of Finance in April.

Final approval came on a 15-6 vote, with every Democrat voting to approve the budget and every Republican opposing it. Unaffiliated members Lisa Valenti and Thomas Whitmoyer split, with Valenti voting against and Whitmoyer voting for the budget.

Following the final vote, Councilman Kevin Shively, D-2, expressed frustration that the GOP members said they were concerned about creating a potential funding cliff, but had voted as a bloc against spending reductions proposed by Democrats.

“I am confused every single Republican on this town council voted against reducing spending and wanted to increase spending,” Shively said. “I don’t understand how you can be concerned about a spending cliff and want to spend more money. I just want to make that point so the public understands what actually went on here tonight.”

The meeting opened with Minority Leader Lori Rosasco-Schwartz questioning why next year’s budget included a 3 percent tax hike when federal COVID-19 relief funds were sufficient to cover the entire $5.5 million spending increase from this year.

“It’s just feeling like we’re building a house of cards at taxpayer expense and we’re going to have a very big tax increase” in the future, she said.

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro pointed out that the town had lost some revenue over the past year during the pandemic, and that the proposed 3 percent tax hike reflected two years of increases.

“We had no tax increase last year, let’s not forget that,” she said.

The only change the council made from the Board of Finance recommendation was a $94,553 cut to a school travel reimbursement account. That money is allocated to fund school bus service for non-public schools and is based on use. The council approved the cut by a 15-6 vote.

The sharpest discussion of the hour-long meeting came as the council debated the total school budget of just over $120 million. Minority Leader Carl Massaro, R-3, questioned the total, stating that it fell $1.5 million short of Superintendent Martin Semmel’s request.

Majority Leader Jason Marsh, D-3, said Massaro’s comment was true but misleading.

“The superintendent stated quite clearly and unequivocally that the first selectman’s allocation, with the (anticipated) budget surplus and federal money, would more than fully fund the school system this year,” he said.

Tony Scinto, R-2, disagreed.

“At the committee hearing, I flat out asked if the superintendent had enough money to run the school system and he said ‘no,’” Scinto said.

The comment drew an immediate response from Shively, who had chaired that meeting. Shively characterized Scinto’s remark as “not actually a true statement” and clarified the nature of the exchange.

“Mr. Scinto actually asked whether — if he (Semmel) only got the money the first selectman proposed — would he have enough money and he said he wouldn’t be able to do everything he wanted to do with that amount of money,” Shively said. “However, we all know that’s not the amount of money he’s actually getting.”

Marsh said Scinto had “recharacterized” the conversation between himself and Semmel.

“When presented with the full amount the Board of Education will receive through budget allocations, through surplus and federal money, the superintendent was quite clear the budget would be fully funded,” he said.

Shively went a step farther.

“When all is said and done, they (the schools) will be $700,000 or $800,000 ahead of where they were originally,” he said. “They (the Board of Finance) actually gave them more than what they asked for.”

Massaro, though, argued that surplus funds do not automatically go into the school budget.

“They just sit in the general fund,” he said.

The schools and finance board also had discussed using the anticipated school budget surplus from this year to cover one-time expenses, not fund programs next year, Massaro said.

“I’m not buying the argument that the superintendent and Board of Education request is fully funded from all these other sources,” he said.

But Massaro’s comments on the school budget contradicted the school superintendent’s, Marsh said.

“The superintendent is watchdog over his own budget, and he indicated he’s getting enough money to run the school system the way it should be run next year,” Marsh said. “Mr. Massaro is supplanting his judgment for the superintendent’s. And if I have to choose one, I’m going to choose to hear from the superintendent.”

Tesoro and Massaro also had a testy exchange when she questioned where his school budget numbers were coming from. She asked if his numbers included debt service and other expenses not related to school programs.

Massaro pointed to the budget spreadsheet that listed the bottom line school budget.

“That’s my answer,” he said.

Marsh had the final word on the topic.

“I think it’s clear that Mr. Massaro, who’s chaired the council and been on the council for a number of years, knows how the budget allocation works and I’ll just leave it at that,” he said.