“The bill has come due to pay for our schools.” That’s how Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman described his board’s thinking heading into this year’s budget cycle.
After the school district’s long-term facilities plan was released earlier this year, a plan which detailed hundreds of millions in need across the city’s schools, the Board of Finance began having discussions about “how we’ll actually pay for this.”
Freedman said that once the board saw Mayor Caroline Simmons’ proposed budget in March, which called for a 1% overall increase in taxes, the board “knew there was a unique opportunity.”
Following savings created after the city moved its employees to the state healthcare plan last year, as well as after some additional reductions from the Board of Finance, Freedman said that the board was able to “create some room” in the budget to create a $20 million fund dedicated to school construction and keep the overall tax increase at 1%.
“It was a collective decision—$20 million + 1% tax increase—to pair those two things together,” Freedman said, describing how the board decided on the amount for the fund.
The Board of Representatives gave final approval to creating the fund, voting 38-1-1 in favor of it.
Freedman said that by putting aside $20 million, they can save some money since they’ll be paying for some school construction “in cash” and not have to borrow and then pay back with interest.
The school district’s facilities plan outlined more than $600 million in needs for the district. Earlier this month, Stamford State Senator Pat Billie Miller, along with Norwalk State Senator Bob Duff, announced that the state legislature had approved a 60% reimbursement rate for school construction projects in Norwalk and Stamford. That brought the estimated local cost down to about $321 million, according to Freedman.
“Before the state changed its funding formula it was $600 million,” Freedman said, adding that there was no way the city could afford to pay for all of that. “Now we can actually think about doing the whole plan.
Freedman noted that $321 million still is “a lot of money, hard to get your arms around it.”
Some members of the Board of Representatives questioned the $20 million amount, arguing for a larger fund, but Freedman said that they wanted to also be careful about overtaxing the residents.
“I think that this is a good idea, a good investment,” Representative Nina Sherwood said. “Being able to put away $20 million while only raising taxes by 1% is a great deal for the residents of the city. I would not want to see that go up anymore.”
The approval for the fund is only from this year’s budget, but the board could vote again next year to appropriate additional funds.
“What we’re talking about is setting money aside from this fiscal year’s taxes—no one is committing to a 20-year schedule of doing this, every year might be a little bit different,” said Mary Lou Rinaldi, the vice chair of the Board of Finance.