The Stratford Town Council passed final approval for the Town's budget for fiscal year 2014-2015, which takes effect July 1, 2014. The budget is an overall increase of 6% in expenditures and only 2.8% increase to the overall mill rate that calculate the taxable properties in town. The school budget increase is about 2.5%.
The mill rate will be 35.63 mills in the fiscal year that starts in July. A mill rate equals to $35.63 of property tax for every $1,000 net dollars of assessed property values. The net value is 70% of the total value. For example, a house that is appraised at $300,000 will have a total mill rate of nearly $10,700, but only 70% is taxable, making the property tax is a little under $7,500. The average assessed value for Stratford homes is around $250,000 or a little more than $6,200 in taxes. The rate varies on values of the property, and any tax credits for veterans and seniors. Mayor Harkins's budget proposed a mill rate of 36.62, about one mill higher than what the Council finally approved. The total town budget is $204,231,075 for the upcoming year. One mill is about $4.4 million on tax revenue for the town.
The budget passed 7 votes to 2 with bipartisan support. Absent from the vote was Second District Councilmember Matthew Catalano. Voting in favor were Councilmembers Peter Massey (R-1), Stephanie Phillips (D-3), Kenneth Poisson (R-6), Craig Budnick R-7), Council Majority Leader James Connor (R-8), Paul Hoydick (R-10) and Council Chairman Joseph A. Kubic. Voting in opposition were Councilmembers Jason Santi (D-4) and Brian Dempsey (R-5).
To offset some of the budget increases and keep the mill rate under 36 mills, the Town is looking at land and property sales to cover approximately $4.5 million in expenses. The budget also secures a 2.5% increase to the school budget to cover the cost of personnel and classroom projects. Not included in the allocations were Board of Education requested funds for computer and technological upgrades throughout the district. A deal has been made between the Town and Board of Education to develop a capital improvement project, or bonded money, to help provide resources for the upgrades. The increased allocations are $2.3 million to the school board.
In addition, the major budgetary increase was paying off the bond to fully fund the outstanding pension obligations in Town that were underfunded and treated as political footballs for well over 20 years. This is the first of three years of major bond payments to move the pension liabilities off the books. New hires to all town unions have been in defined contribution, 401K style, retirement benefits to maintain cost controls for years to come.
"The budget was a compromise and we are giving some money back to the schools. We are taking a risk with the land sales. We need to make sure that we secure those sales. The reason taxes are up is to fix the pensions. It was not pretty, but it is a solution" said Councilwoman Phillips (D-3).
Board of Education funding has been a point of contention between the Town and School Board. The Board of Education originally requested a $5.2 million increase, and the Town and Board of Education settled on a $2.3 million increase, with some projects to be managed by capital improvement funds. Councilman Jason Santi voted against the budget in part due to what he saw "education has gotten a cut in recent years." Councilman Craig Budnick retorted that "Schools continue to get more and more money and yet the test scores and results seem to decline. There are a lot of numbers out there that no one ever speaks about publicly."
The other point of contention was opposition to salary increases to non union, at will employees that make up 7 percent of the Town's workforce. Studies have shown that Stratford at will administrative employees make under market value between 10% to 25% less than equivalent jobs in other towns in Connecticut. Some Democrats and progressive groups like Move Stratford have called for salary freezes as a means to stabilize the budget. Councilman James Connor responded, "93 percent of the workforce is unionized, with guaranteed salary increases. At will workers have not seen a pay raise in 7 years. Many of these workers are working mothers who sacrifice time with their families to earn a paycheck. To give them a more competitive wage is fairer and more ethical."
Stratford's highest mill rates in the past 70 years were in the late 1980s and early 1990s with mill rates ranging from 67 mills to 74 mills. This was also around the time the pension and union contracts were also negotiated.