Healthcare savings keep Trumbull proposed tax hike to 3%

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro speaks at the dedication ceremony for Mary Ellen Way, in front of Jane Ryan Elementary School, in Trumbull, Conn. Nov. 6. 2020.

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro speaks at the dedication ceremony for Mary Ellen Way, in front of Jane Ryan Elementary School, in Trumbull, Conn. Nov. 6. 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

TRUMBULL — The public school system and the town departments will each receive 3 percent increases under the proposed $183.8 million budget that First Selectman Vicki Tesoro presented to the Board of Finance March 1.

The 2021-22 budget, if adopted as is by the board and town council, would require a tax hike of just over 3 percent, or about $317 on a house valued at $400,000.

“Our current budget year, 2020-21, and the upcoming budget year, 2021-22, are the most challenging budgets Trumbull has faced in decades due to the unprecedented financial conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tesoro wrote in her 10-page budget letter.

Last year, the finance board made a concerted effort not to increase taxes, stripping the budget of anything deemed non-necessary in a process members described as “agonizing.”

This year’s budget was even tougher, Tesoro said.

“Some of the things we did last year meant that we actually had a funding cliff, making it even more challenging this year,” she said. “We decided last year we would help taxpayers by not raising taxes. So there are two ways of looking at this year’s 3 percent proposed increase. You could say that it is 3 percent over two years, or 1.5 percent each year for two years.”

As the largest expense item in the budget, the Board of Education will receive $112.3 million, or about 61 percent of the total town budget. That number represents an increase of $3.2 million from last year, but is $450,000 less than the Board of Education requested.

Tesoro said the reduction was a result of updated health insurance cost estimates.

“When the superintendent requested a 4.33 percent increase, the information we had put the increase in premiums at about 8 percent,” Tesoro said. “But our latest information puts that number at 4 percent for next year.

Accordingly, Tesoro said, she reduced the school budget to reflect the expectation that insurance costs would be less than originally budgeted. She made a similar cut on the town side numbers, she said.

“If I had given the Board of Education their total request, the tax increase would have been 4.1 percent, which is too much to ask of our businesses and residents during these difficult times,” she said. “My budget allocation gives our school system a $3.3 million increase while at the same time allows for the funding of other critical town needs.”

Tesoro defended her school allocation by pointing out that in the four years she has been first selectman, the school budget increases have ranged from 2.5 percent in 2019-20 to 3.1 percent in 2018-19. The previous four years, the percent increase ranged from a low of 1.42 percent in 2017-18 to 2.34 percent in 2015-16.

With the town dedicating more than 60 percent of taxpayer dollars to the schools, Tesoro also called for a detailed financial audit of the school system after an operational audit last year turned up numerous deficincies.

“Some have questioned the wisdom of doing such an audit claiming the expense is too high. I disagree,” she said. “With an annual budget over $110,000,000, we would be remiss if we continue to operate without full knowledge of the facts, both good and bad. Our taxpayers deserve nothing else.”

On the town side, most departments received about a 3 percent budget increase, although Tesoro recommended a 5.1 percent hike for the Police Department, from $9.6 million to $10.1 million.

“Public safety is, and always will be, one of my highest priorities,” she said.

Finally, Tesoro expressed cautious optimism that the stimulus package currently before Congress would include relief for towns like Trumbull that have seen revenue declines as a result of pandemic-related restrictions.

“However, we cannot budget based on the hope that Trumbull will receive money from the stimulus bill. My budget does not contain any income we might derive from the stimulus package,” she said. “Should the stimulus package pass in a timely fashion, our residents and businesses will receive much-needed relief.”

With Tesoro’s budget request in hand, the Board of Finance has scheduled its own deliberations beginning March 2. The board can make revisions before passing it on to the town council, which must finalize the budget by May 15.