By Michael Rettger and Andrew Okrongly, members of the Board of Finance
The Board of Finance has approved the 2022-23 operating budgets for the town and the school district, as well as the 2022-23 annual capital budget, a move that sends all three to the annual Town Meeting (on Monday May 2) and the annual budget referendum (on Tuesday May 10).
Building the Budgets
The development and approval of these budgets is a structured process defined in the Town Charter. The process extends over more than six months and involves three major town boards – the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Education, and the Board of Finance. The planning activity peaks at the end of March, as the budgets cover the town’s fiscal year which runs from the coming July 1 through June 30 of the following year.
Each budget comes to the Board of Finance for review via slightly different development paths:
- Town Operating Budget
This budget is developed by the Board of Selectmen in a series of meetings in January and February, with input from all town departments, and comes directly to the BOF after approval by the Selectmen. The town also prepares a debt service budget which covers the annual costs of interest and repayment of principal on the town’s outstanding borrowings.
- Schools Operating Budget
This budget is developed by the Board of Education, starting with detailed planning workshops involving RPS staff, BOE members, and the public. The BOE holds a public hearing on the Superintendent’s proposed budget in February and then meets for further review and debate before adopting a BOE endorsed budget, usually in early March. Before coming to the BOF, the BOE adopted budget is first reviewed by the Board of Selectmen, which is authorized to make its own non-binding recommendation for this budget (in the aggregate) before sending it along for BOF review.
- Annual Capital Budget
The annual capital budget encompasses spending for equipment and major infrastructure maintenance needs that typically have an expected useful life of 10 years or more. The capital budget includes items ranging from new trucks for the highway or fire department, road and sidewalk projects, and various building repairs. In recent years, IT equipment has become a major component of this budget as well.
The BOE submits its capital requests to the Board of Selectmen, who review them along with the capital requests from town departments. The combined capital budget request is sent along for review to the BOF after approval by the BOS.
Board of Finance Role
Once the proposed budgets are developed, they are made available for public review and are the focus of a public hearing in late March. The BOF then holds a series of meetings to review the proposals, ask questions of the BOS and BOE, and conduct its own deliberations. In addition to reviewing proposed spending, the BOF is responsible for deciding other key assumptions that affect the calculation of the overall tax levy. These include the expected collection rate for tax bills, the amounts of expected non-tax revenues (such as Parks and Rec revenues, building permit fees, real estate conveyance taxes, and investment income), and the amount of any current-year surplus that will be carried forward into the following year’s revenue calculation. This last decision is especially important, as it affects both the resulting tax mill rate as well as the expected amount of the ”Rainy Day” fund balance maintained by the town.
The BOF goal in the budget process, as defined by the Town Charter, is the “prudent management” of the town’s fiscal situation in light of “the overall financial condition of the Town.” The BOF is directed to take the perspective of “municipal government as a whole” rather than acting from “the viewpoint of any particular Town agency.” The Town Charter also constrains what actions the BOF can take with respect to the proposed budgets. For example, the BOF can reduce the amount of an operating budget request but may not increase it from what was requested. Also, if the BOF decides to make a reduction in an operating budget, it can only change the aggregate amount and cannot direct the cuts to any specific line items within the budget. In the capital budget, the BOF can add items as well as eliminate items, but any additions must then also be approved by the Board of Selectmen.
The Annual Town Meeting and Annual Budget Referendum
This is where you – the voter – get to participate directly in the budget process
Upon approval by the Board of Finance, the three budgets are then scheduled for discussion and vote at the Annual Town Meeting, which will be held this year on Monday, May 2 at the Ridgefield Playhouse. Here also, the Town Charter defines what may happen at this meeting. Participants have the right to propose reductions in or eliminations of (but not additions to) specific line items in either operating budget, with any changes proposed subject to majority vote by the meeting. For the capital budget, attendees can propose elimination of any capital item but may not make additions, again subject to meeting vote. The Town Meeting can approve any individual items in the Capital budget of under $100,000, and also votes to bundle the remaining capital items into specific ballot questions to facilitate voting at the referendum.
Once approved by the Town Meeting, the budgets are submitted to the voters of the town in the annual budget referendum, being held this year on Tuesday, May 10 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Yanity Gym. Upon completion of the voting, the results are presented for ratification by the Town Meeting. The Board of Finance then completes the last step of the process, which is to calculate the “mill rate” that will be used for property tax bills for the coming budget year.
Please Get Involved and VOTE
So what are you voting on this year?
In total, the BOF approved a spending budget for the coming fiscal year of $155.7 million. This total includes budgets for the town of $39.2 million (an increase of 2.53% from prior year) and for the schools of $106.7 million (an increase of 4.24%), a budget for roads and infrastructure of $1.6 million (a 50% increase), and finally a debt service budget of $8.3 million (a decrease of 15.6%).
If approved by the voters, this budget will result in a small increase in the property “mill rate” for next year of 0.77%, once growth in the tax base and other town revenue sources are taken into account. This is the third year in a row that the mill rate increase for Ridgefield has been under 1% !
Also on the referendum ballot are several questions relating to the town’s capital budget, which in total was approved for $6.4 million this year.The town meeting and particularly the annual budget referendum are your opportunities to express your opinion about the budget. Unfortunately, the budget referendum historically has had very low voter turnout – last past year, for example, only about 8% of eligible town voters participated. We very much encourage you to take the few extra minutes on Tuesday, May 10 to do your part to contribute to the working of local government and feet-on-the-ground democracy in Ridgefield.
Mike Rettger, CFA-Retired and Andrew Okrongly, CFA are Democratic members of the Board of Finance. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Mike and Andrew, and are not intended to represent those of the other members of the BOF.