Trumbull finance board axes trash hauler fees, lowers 2021-22 tax hike to under 2%

TRUMBULL — Tax bills next year may be a little lower than previously thought following a series of financial maneuvers by the Board of Finance Wednesday evening.

In a series of votes over the course of the three-hour meeting, members increased First Selectman Vicki Tesoro’s 2021-22 budget proposal slightly while also eliminating a proposed trash hauling fee.

The board-approved budget also does not use any money from the town’s general fund and reduces the projected tax increase from 3.17 percent to 1.92 percent.

Ultimately, the board approved a 2021-22 budget proposal of $184 million, a $166,746 increase from Tesoro’s proposed $183.87 million. That difference represents about .07 percent.

“The goals were to minimize the impact in taxpayers, fund the schools and public safety with the highest priority and to ensure the general fund remains strong,” said board member Martin Isaac.

In a brief presentation before the board delved into the original $183.87 million spending plan, Isaac explained that since Tesoro submitted her budget on March 1, the town has learned that the American Rescue Plan would provide significant financial relief.

“The town will receive about $10 million, and the Board of Education about $1.7 million,” Isaac said. “This is really great news for the town.”

The funds, spread out over two years, allowed the town to eliminate Tesoro’s proposal to use $1.9 million from the general fund to defray a potential tax increase, eliminate the planned fees on trash haulers, add about $100,000 to town department budgets and reduce the proposed property tax hike.

“From our perspective, this leaves us in a very strong position,” Isaac said.

The finance board does not have line-item control over the Board of Education funds, but Isaac said between the federal funds, a projected $2 million surplus this year and $217,000 in energy use rebates, the schools could — if the school board chooses — close ongoing deficits in the special revenue and lunch accounts and make up the difference between the school board’s original request and Tesoro’s allocation.

“That establishes solvency and fully funds the Board of Ed,” he said.

The board’s Republicans, Steve Choi and Elaine Hammers, questioned the wisdom of allocating funds that had been promised but not yet delivered. Hammers also questioned whether the planned use of federal funds would create a funding cliff in future years, when that money was no longer available.

“My concern is that the $5 million each year is a one-time shot and some of those items look like they are in fact budgeted, (such as) the $100,000 for the town departments, or more for the Board of Ed,” Hammers said. “You look to offset certain revenue increases like not using the fund balance or charging the haulers. But when it (federal money) goes away in two years, you won’t have that funding.”

Board Chair Lainie McHugh expressed optimism that the grand list, the sum of all taxable property in town, would increase over the next two years as several new apartment developments opened and were added to the tax rolls.

“I’m hoping over two years the grand list will adjust for that,” she said.

School funding produced the only strong disagreement of the meeting, after Choi proposed adding slightly more than $886,000 to Tesoro’s proposed $112.3 million allocation, praising the leadership of Superintendent Martin Semmel, who has been on the job since September. Tesoro’s recommendation was about $450,000 less than the school board had requested. The motion ultimately failed 4-2 along party lines.

“I just think Dr. Semmel has done an awesome job,” Choi said. “Given the current situation, the Board of Ed needs all the support they can get. This is an opportunity to start with a clean slate and give Dr. Semmel what he needs.”

Isaac replied that the finance board’s allocation was sufficient to fully fund the schools and that the proposed increase would merely double the school system’s projected surplus.

“Keep in mind that the Board of Ed budget was closed before they had any understanding that they were getting a penny from the federal government,” he said.

Hammers disagreed, saying Semmel had spoken about funding shortfalls during their budget hearings.

“He talked about transportation of $917,000 and $245,000 for magnet school tuition,” Hammers said.

Democrat Michael Barker was adamant.

“This plan fully funds — overfunds — the Board of Ed request. It just does,” he said.

Barker also chastised the GOP contingent for not participating in the budget work sessions, calling Hammers’ complaints that she had just seen the budget numbers that day “nonsense.”

“We gave you ample opportunity to join us in working sessions and you didn’t take us up on it,” he said.

Hammers said the board members had held public conversations, but the final numbers the Democrats were planning to present had never been brought up.

“I’ve been on this board a lot of years, and I’ve never refused to work on something, and I’m not refusing now,” she said. “I’ll stack my 30 years on this board against anybody’s.”