By LISA CAPOBIANCO
City officials approved a mill rate of 36.03 for Fiscal Year 2016-2017, which represents an increase of 1.42 mills, or a 4.1 percent tax increase.
During a Joint Board special meeting last Wednesday, the Board of Finance and City Council voted 10 to 3 to approve a general fund budget of $189,162,910. This represents an increase of more than $4 million over the current budget of 185,005,865.
City officials also approved a capital improvement budget of $15,794,960.
With the newly adopted state budget, Bristol lost $1.3 million in revenue from the state.
“As we face the headwinds of the future, we need to prepare for additional impacts from the state budget,” said Board of Finance Chairperson Cheryl Thibeault, adding that the city budget has no decrease in services for residents.
Despite the tax increase, said Republican Mayor Ken Cockayne, the city “did hold the line on taxes.”
“If we took out the money that the state cut, we had a very comfortable budget this year,” said Cockayne, adding that the new city budget fully funds infrastructure and gives an additional $3.3 million for schools. “This is a tough budget…but it’s something that needed to be done.”
Republican City Councilor Tony D’Amato said has approved the budget with a “heavy heart.”
“I don’t think anyone wants to increase taxes,” said D’Amato, adding he is worried about the next budget cycle. “But there does come a time when we have to tighten our belts and we have to do what we don’t necessarily want to do.”
Democratic City Councilors Mary Fortier, Calvin Brown, and Dave Preleski voted against the budget.
“I’m concerned that the value residents are getting for that increase isn’t quite at the level it should be because we are, to my view, shortchanging our school system,” said Brown. “For people who are trying to sell their homes, there aren’t lines of people trying to buy them in most neighborhoods—even in neighborhoods with some of our city’s finest schools. That’s not good for anybody.”
“The number one thing that a family uses to decide what community they’re going to move to is the education system,” said Fortier. “I think the education budget is being short-changed here.”
Noting that he struggled with his decision, Preleski said he did not support the budget because of the process behind it.
“I don’t think we dug deep enough to ask a lot of tough questions as much as we should have,” said Preleski, adding that next year’s budget will be even more challenging. “I was concerned about the school budget. For us to attract businesses…young families…we have to invest.”
Republican City Councilor Dave Mills said that although he would like to see schools receive as much funding as possible, there are other positive things happening in the community.
“There are other reasons for people to move to the community,” said Mills. “The schools are just one facet.”
During the meeting, Bristol Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ellen Solek told Joint Board that school officials have discussed ideas for future cost savings with people in the district.
“The Board of Education continues to look at many suggestions from administrators, teachers and others in the district to come up with creative ideas around regionalizing services, combining services, creating additional cost savings measures and expanding current programming in a way that’s fiscally responsible,” said Solek.
Later that evening during its monthly meeting, the Board of Education unanimously adopted a general operating budget of $107,147,240. The board also adopted the School Lunch Program budget for $2,825,930.
School officials said they were simply voting on the budget amount that the city approved, and more specific details about the new budget will be discussed in future meetings. After working on possible solutions with the Board of Finance in recent months, the Board of Education is now searching for ways to reduce the school budget by $1 million instead of the initial $3 million that was requested by the city. Last month, students, parents and teachers urged school officials not to cut funding in the arts and college support programs.
The board initially requested a school budget with an increase of $4.7 million. After working on possible solutions with the Board of Finance in recent months, the Board of Education is now searching for ways to reduce the school budget
Board of Education Vice Chairperson Karen Vibert said the school budget for next fiscal year is an increase of $310,000 over the current budget.
“We’re going to have to make some very tough decisions,” said Vibert. “This does not cover everything that we need.”