Last year’s budget process seemed fraught with conflict from start to finish. First, the superintendent proposed the second largest budget increase in more than a decade, which was rubber stamped by the board of education. Next came a tide of online protests, public comment, and a deluge of letters to the editors. It all led to the board of finance slashing the school budget by more than $1.2 million. The process culminated with the council in a flurry of line item vetoes down the stretch before a unanimous, 7-0 vote (with two abstentions). Of course, the process bore fruit with a meager 0.16 mill rate increase (0.5%) which compared favorably to neighboring towns (almost 1/4 of the median average in a state survey conducted by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities), but it seemed that the emotional hangover from all that conflict lingered for months afterwards.

It doesn’t look like there will be a repeat performance. No matter how the rest of the process goes, locals can feel optimistic that the process will be relatively painless thanks to some proactive BOF guidance. The BOF set a proactive ceiling (no more than a 1.5% increase to the mill rate), and it looks like that goal has kept the process humming along.

After the two biggest tax hikes in recent memory, the superintendent proposed a 2.84% increase that’s right around average over the last decade or so, and that allowed the town manager to propose a decent increase to the general government…with some put aside. Combined, they came in almost exactly at the BOF’s ceiling. It wasn’t an overly aggressive goal set by the BOF, and it didn’t seem to pose an insurmountable challenge for the schools or general government. The budget proposals didn’t blow away any expectations for the bottom line, but that’s not anyone’s measure for success this year.

When local historians look back at the 2020 budget season, we doubt that any individual number will leap off the page. But we suspect that historians will mark this season as a turning point for Southington’s finances because the BOF finally took control of the process. We think there’s no coincidence that there’s been no rancor so far, and we credit the BOF for finally taking their rightful place as “the budget-making authority of the Town,” a power granted in the charter.

We hope that the BOF continues to weigh in proactively with future budgets, offering proactive guidance about the town’s needs and its ability to pay. Most likely, the process will change as it gets hammered out over the next few years. Some years, the BOF may be aggressive with their goal. Other years, they may be generous. Their ceiling will change with Southington’s ability to pay, and they will have to explain their thinking up front. Their effectiveness will be judged on Election Day by taxpayers and voters—the way it should be.

Of course, the budget season is far from over. We are sure that there’ll be some fine tuning during the workshops, public hearings, and town council debate before this year’s vote. We still have at least two questions to be answered in the upcoming weeks. First, will the BOF be able to essentially “rubber stamp” the efforts of town officials since officials complied so well to the their guidance? And second, will Chris Palmieri keep his long streak alive, leading the discussion on the council while pushing for more money than the BOF recommends? Will the conflicted councilor still find a way to push for more funds for the schools, himself, and his coworkers if nothing has been slashed from his boss’s budget? Maybe this will finally be the year that the school administrator follows the ethics code and butts out of the conversation and the school vote. Now that would be the perfect ending.

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