Now is the time for all good Board of Finance members to come to the aid of their taxpayers
With the recent arrival of the Warning of the Preliminary Budget Hearing in our mailboxes comes an excellent opportunity to “look under the hood” at our town leader’s priorities, fiscal stewardship and management approach. It’s an annual event that most believe is just part of the process and has no impact on the result. The Governor’s executive order has taken the possibility of a public vote off the table this year, nonetheless, the informational and question and answer portion of the process remained intact through the wonder of modern technology (WebEx). And that’s a very good thing, as the financial pressures Woodbridge faces due to the recent devaluation of our homes and the reductions in personal income due to the pandemic mean the pending budget should not perpetuate the year after year increases in spending and mill rate we begrudgingly accept. Now is the time for our town budget to reflect reality.
The potentially good news is the BOF, according to comments made by the BOF Chair during the WebEx event, recognizes that what was printed and mailed does not reflect the recent, drastic downturn in the economy. So what should come back after the promised deep-dive into projected expenses and revenues will hopefully contain more than the traditional tweaking, if anything, after a public hearing.
Woodbridge taxpayers should expect several areas to be considered in redrafting the 2020-21 budget. First, there should be a reduction in actual expenses in the current fiscal year due to the state-imposed shutdown. Those dollars, already in the bank, should be used in the coming fiscal year. Second, moving some money from our “rainy day fund” to the operating budget is appropriate – as we are indeed in a fiscal rainy day. Third, as we learned by a taxpayer’s question emailed in prior to the WebEx, there is $175,000 in overtime pay in the proposed budget. Those dollars should be stricken from the revised budget. There is a sensitivity to eliminating positions, so let’s see what these changes yield before we go down that path.
Education costs are still the biggest portions of the Town budget, as they should be. We are an educated town and recognize the value of that investment. That said, it should not be without limits. The BOF held the line on the Woodbridge Board of Education’s expenditures – it’s flat from the 2019-20 level. The Amity Regional numbers are a different story, as those are based on our proportion of the student population – which is rising. Our elected representatives on the Amity Board should be pressing hard for reductions in their expenditures to mitigate the predictable rise in Woodbridge’s portion of the Amity budget. Where are the fiscal hawks Woodbridge needs on that Board? As of now, it appears nowhere, and that’s bad for us. Let’s not forget Woodbridge voted down one of the two Amity bond issues (the AstroTurf football field), so we do vote with our pocketbooks.
Budgets reflect priorities, be they family, corporate or government budgets. In Woodbridge, our priority is clearly education right now. So, if we are serious, fund it, but do so knowing there will be sacrifices – other things won’t get done. If we fund topflight education, can we deliver equal focus on recreation, seniors, public works, etc.? Not with limited resources. This is precisely why the Board of Finance should be elected – to install people who reflect the town’s priorities – majority rules. The Beecher supporters were clearly in the majority on the WebEx, pushing for the small increase in funding the WBOE proposed. But is this the will of majority of Woodbridge voters? An election answers that question.
There was little said on the WebEx as to why our Grand List dipped by $40M. The answer is a burdensome mill rate. It has taken years of a creeping rate to get us in this pickle, and we won’t get out of it in a single pass. But this year the BOF can reduce our taxes – real dollars – to reflect the impact of reduced home values and family incomes. It will be a test of their commitment to Woodbridge taxpayers. Making the correct, tough decisions now can set the stage for everyone to occasionally hear “we can’t afford it. Period.” Let’s hope we get to that point.