Trumbull finance board approves budget with no tax hike

TRUMBULL — Residents worried about property tax increases next year can breathe a little easier after the Board of Finance voted Wednesday to approve a 2020-21 municipal budget that does not increase taxes.

The board-approved $178.9 million package is about $1.1 million less than First Selectman Vicki Tesoro submitted March 3. Members acknowledged the world economy had been turned upside down by the COVID-19 outbreak in the seven weeks since Tesoro’s proposal.

“This has been an absolutely exhausting effort,” said board member Marty Isaac. “Obviously, this large-scale disruption is impacting everyone.”

In addition to the reductions to Tesoro’s proposal, the board reduced the expected debt service costs on a 2012 bond by about $1 million through refinancing at the current very low rates, and voted to allocate $2.96 million from the town’s fund balance to offset the tax increase that would have been required to fund the budget.

“This is what people refer to as the Rainy Day Fund, and I can’t say that there has ever been any more rain,” Isaac said. “We are in a thunderstorm.”

The board also hopes to save money by asking town employees — except for police, EMS and fire marshals — to forego their contractual pay increases.

The allocation from the General Fund generated the only real debate of the evening, with Republicans Steve Choi and Elaine Hammers opposing the move.

Hammers pointed out that the town had already lost about $800,000 in revenue since town accounts were generating far less interest than expected due to COVID-19’s effect on the economy. In addition, some residents may opt to take advantage of deferments approved by the Town Council to pay their property taxes up to three months later than usual.

“On top of that, we’re going to have less money in the General Fund,” she said. “I don’t know how we cover the loss of revenue and interest, and the use of general funds, which means less money invested and less interest.”

Using nearly $3 million from the general fund to offset a tax increase would create a funding cliff next year, Hammers said. She advocated working through the budget to cut the 2020-21 proposal to $174.7 million, which is the amount approved for the current fiscal year.

“The only good way to get to a zero (tax increase) is to zero out the increase,” she said. “I know that’s a brutal solution. I know that’s tough.”

Chairman Lainie McHugh said such a move would have been devastating to the schools.

“Despite desperate times, we must remain committed to the education and welfare of our children,” she said.

But with it clear that Hammers and Choi were outvoted by Isaac, McHugh, Paul Timpanelli and Michael Barker, the board proceeded quickly through the scores of line items, making reductions ranging from a few thousand dollars to a half-million reduction in the Board of Education allocation.

“My son is going into kindergarten next year, so I care deeply about this line-item,” Barker said. “This is a reasonable reduction.”

The board approved $108.8 million for the schools, a 2.53 percent increase over the current year’s $106.1 million package, but $500,000 less than the $109.3 million Tesoro had recommended and a considerable reduction from the $110.9 million the school board requested in January.

Isaac called the school budget reduction “absolutely agonizing.”

“We received many, many letters to try to meet the requested needs,” he said. “The financial responsibility we face is daunting.”

Isaac said he had intended to reduce the school allocation even further, but had been swayed in meetings with school officials.

“I felt we had no choice but to come in at this level,” he said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. I vote with a heavy heart.”

The board ultimately voted 4-2 along party lines to send the proposal to the Town Council.

Tesoro called the vote “a good outcome” and thanked the board members for their efforts.

“We managed to avoid a tax increase for all of our residents and businesses as they navigate through this unprecedented emergency,” she said. “At the same time, we prioritized the things that are most essential to our success as a town. If there was ever a time to use the ‘rainy-day fund,’ it’s now.”