A $112M town-school budget approved by the Board of Finance (pictured) formally heads to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) tonight with a tiny mill rate increase, following the pattern of a number of shoreline communities this year.
The RTM will examine the RTM budget as it seeks to find additional ways to decrease it. The formal process begins at the RTM meeting tonight at Fire Headquarters at 8 p.m. But the RTM “cannot increase it,” Joseph Mooney, chair of the BOF, said late last month when the BOF unanimously adopted it. Under state law, the BOF consists of three Democrats and three Republicans. At this point, the mill rate would increase a smidgen from 28.47 mills to 28.67 mills over the previous rate. But it might go lower.
After the RTM process, the budget will return to the BOF in May at which time “we will officially set the mill rate,” Mooney said. Then he thanked Finance Director Jim Finch for his help in getting the budget into shape. This year’s budget was far easier to arrive than last year’s. Last year ‘s budget was based on a gubernatorial proposal to have towns and cities pay their share of teacher pension costs.
The largest item in the $112.1 million budget was $57.26 million to cover operating and capital costs for the town’s schools, a 1.9 percent increase despite a decline in enrollment. Most costs are pre-determined by union contracts. Town costs came in at $45.29 million and those, too, are determined largely by union contracts. An additional $1.35 million goes toward a contingency fund and $8.27 million was put into debt service for town bonds. The annual increase over last year came in at $373,977 or 0.3 percent.
First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, an ex-officio member of the BOF, said the budget adopted by the BOF centers on key principles. He said it continues to invest in the town’s infrastructure, continues to fund future liabilities, and “provides programs and services for the residents of Branford.”
A Budget Ritual
One of the rituals of the budget season has the heads of town departments present their budget overview, explain their needs and show how their departments are changing.
Police Chief Kevin Halloran, for example, told the BOF about a search for a new deputy chief. The top officials of the department are expected to retire in the next few years, including Halloran, so the search for a deputy chief is a key priority.
Chief Halloran said the search for a new deputy police chief will involve screening by other police chiefs from other areas. That way the process is unbiased, he said. “But ultimately it will be our decision,” Halloran said. The process also insures that those not qualified are weeded out. The candidates undergo detailed vetting.
BOF member Charles Shelton asked the chief if the candidates are prioritized. “They present 12 to 15 candidates, and they decide if they are qualified. They don’t prioritize.”
An Aging Population
In seeking a special FEMA grant of about $385,000 Fire Chief Tom Mahoney provided some insight into Branford’s current population and its needs. When presented to the BOF last month, Mahoney, the chief, and other Fire Commission members recapped staffing concerns. Mooney asked for additional information. So last night fire officials and commissioners (pictured) explained the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant at a special BOF meeting.
Afterwards the BOF unanimously approved recommending the application SAFER grant by the fire department. The grant is competitive and finite. It will add eight additional employees to the Fire Department staff.
The Fire Department now oversees all ambulance operations in Branford. In recent years calls have increased by 23 percent.
BOF member Shelton, who oversees a health facility, noted the town’s needs will increase with new residential populations, such as the Atlantic Wharf and Gould Lane developments. There are also more health care facilities in town that require ambulances and, as Shelton put it, “an aging population that isn’t moving.”
Mahoney said, “We’re at the saturation point. We are stretched all the time, especially when all the ambulances are out.”
Mahoney is seeking eight additional employees. If they received funding for four people, the department would have to increase overtime costs, Mahoney said. The goal is to increase day-to-day efficiency of calls for paramedics and ambulances. The chief added there has been a strong increase in medical/EMS services. However, fire calls and rescue calls, including water rescue for a town that lies on the Sound, have remained relatively flat.
Volunteers?? Not So Fast
And then there is the reality the Branford department and other fire departments face, the lack of volunteer firefighters and the difficulty in recruiting them in this century.
“We’re not seeing the response despite incentive and retirement packages,” Mahoney said. “Since 1998, there’s been a 38 percent decrease in volunteers,” he said, creating an “extra burden” on the department. And volunteers, he added “are not staying long, they’re older. The “middle group” is missing.
Deputy Fire Chief Shaun Heffernan added, “It’s a need we’ve seen for years.”
The goal of the grant is to “make all of our calls more efficient, to have a better turn-around time,” Mahoney said. He also noted that Guilford applied for four-person grant and didn’t get it. But when it reapplied for eight people it did.
Cosgrove observed that “eight sounds like a lot, but it’s a 24/7, 365-day need, an increase from eight people to 10 per shift. We are stretched on current resources.”
The BOF agreed and wished the Fire Department well in seeking the grant.
Election Year Coming Up
The Registrar of Voters said its costs were higher this year because it anticipates two primaries in August. In addition there are roughly 25 to 26 candidates for governor. “We will have a robust ballot,” said Dan Halley, the Democratic Registrar of Voters.
Marion Burkhard, the Republican Registrar of Voters, said the registrars had to raise their election budget because of anticipated primaries. In 2017-18, “our budget for elections was $139,482. We are now requesting $165,592, by $26,110 or 18.7 percent, she told the BOF.
Pardee Park is a Go
This year Pardee Park, a 30-year-old playground in Short Beach, received a much-needed makeover. The Short Beach Association voted a matching $30,000 grant to help fund the town’s renovation of Pardee Park. Stony Creek’s playground received a makeover recently. Alex Palluzzi, Jr., director of the Recreation Department, said Pardee Park was utilized a lot.The park provides summer camp park space, fields and playgrounds. At the same time the park has the oldest playground equipment in Branford, and as a result, is not compliant with safety regulations. A group of residents led the campaign to revitalize the park, including RTM member Robin Comey, Doug Hanlon, Margaret Carpenter and Dawn Perrotti, a local resident. They were delighted with the outcome.
An Animal Shelter Reality
Laura Burban, director of the Cosgrove Animal Shelter, provided an update on the animal population. One new idea is to combine adopting an animal and licensing it at the same time, an idea designed to reduce fees for the pet owner.
Burban said Branford has roughly 966 dogs licensed at this time, even though there are probably about 4,000 dogs in Branford. She observed that the shelter’s animal camp is “sold out each year.”
Apartment complexes, and Branford has many, “have tons of dogs,” but the owners are not always compliant with licensing them, she said.
And while she didn’t say so directly, access to the private condo world isn’t always easy.