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Monday, February 17, 2003

February 17, 2003 - One less gardener will rake the leaves in local parks this fall. Will anyone notice?

Officials: Budget cuts won't hurt public


Staff Writer

One less gardener will rake the leaves in local parks this fall.

Will anyone notice?

Probably not, according to the scores of municipal officials who last week declared that strict belt-tightening guidelines established by the town's finance board would result in negligible reductions to the services their departments provide.

Those same department heads boasted they were able to limit their budget increases to the Board of Estimate and Taxation's desired threshold of 3 percent to 4 percent largely without consolidating or eliminating vacant positions as the finance board recommended.

But asked if the departments he oversees had received too much money in sunnier economic times given their response to current spending limits, First Selectman Richard Bergstresser rushed to the defense of his immediate subordinates.

The first-term Democrat claimed municipal department heads made substantial cuts to their budgets in areas that do not impact the public.

"Internally they will suffer, but they aren't going to do it at the expense of services to the citizens," Bergstresser said, citing the Police Department as an area where administrators are making cuts. He serves as police commissioner by virtue of his post as first selectman.

By reorganizing shifts and the deployment of officers, Bergstresser said, department officials will reduce overtime expenses and the additional costs associated with part-time employees.

While most municipal department heads appeared unwilling to lay off employees to achieve savings, they agreed to maintain the same spending levels on supplies as this year.

In the past, most departments raised spending in these areas to account for inflation. Facing a projected revenue shortfall of $1 million to $2 million in the town's $260 million-plus budget, department heads are now being urged to be more judicious in using supplies such as salt for icy roads and services such as the hiring of outside counsel to defend the town against lawsuits.

"Another example would be to say, 'Don't make as many copies,' " said James Lash, chairman of the finance board's Budget Committee. "You could have some (personal computers) that you might have replaced this year that you put off until next year."

In the town's Law Department, attorneys typically rely on an Internet-based legal research service that charges on a usage basis. Town Attorney John Wetmore speculated that his department will have less leeway to exceed its budget for that service given the current economic climate.

"We have to live within that budget," said Wetmore, whose $1.45 million overall budget request is 2.1 percent higher than last year's due mostly to salary increases.

However, Wetmore refuses to pare down salary allocations through a hiring freeze or consolidation of vacant positions in his department of 13 employees. Current staffing levels are just enough for his department to get by with its work, he said.

"The thought of reducing my staff didn't enter my mind, and hopefully it wouldn't enter the BET's mind," Wetmore said.

The BET has the power to reduce departments' budgets, and except in the case of the schools, dictate which areas will be cut.

To control spending on supplies and services, Wetmore said his department would hire outside counsel in few circumstances. He estimated that his department currently has no more than 10 cases pending with outside counsel.

The heads of the town's fleet, public works and parks departments echoed many of Wetmore's opinions regarding budgets, with many of them describing their operations as "bare bones" to begin with.

Parks Director Joseph Siciliano agreed to eliminate a vacant gardener's position from his 143-person operation to help cooperate with the finance board's guidelines. The position paid $39,219 per year plus $11,766 in benefits.

"I was making a sacrifice," said Siciliano, who plans to reassign his remaining employees to offset the elimination. "It is our goal not to have the public recognize these changes."

While municipal department heads were resolute about not allowing their downsizing to affect the public, elected officials were equally optimistic that services would be uninterrupted.

"I don't think the general public is going to get any less, and if they do, you'll hear them, believe me," said Sam Romeo, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting District 12 delegation.

The loudest public outcry over potential budget cuts came last week from parents of public school students and educators. They rebuked the finance board's budget committee after its chairman said he was contemplating an additional $500,000 reduction of the schools' $98.7 million budget request.

Several key members of the town's finance board sought to calm parents' fears that additional cuts would lead to layoffs and burgeoning class sizes.

"You're talking about positions being reduced as they come open because of retirement or normal movement," said Lash, who did not address how class size would be controlled.

Budget officials also were hopeful that a revenue shortfall, once projected to be $10 million, would be reduced to $1 million or $2 million and result in less cuts.

"Quite frankly, I'm very optimistic," BET Chairman Peter Tesei said.

Helping the town's overall fiscal situation is a $1 million surplus from the schools' current budget, which the town deposited into its $11 million to $12 million fund balance, finance board members said. The town also may not have to contribute as much to its pension fund as once thought, finance officials said, adding that department heads' budgets cuts are helping the overall outlook.

Tesei went on to suggest that municipal departments used the additional bounty from sunnier economic times to develop programs that streamlined their operations. He cited a townwide accounting system as an example.

But Tesei also conceded the possibility that municipal budgets had been too fat.

"You could very well arrive at that assumption based on those statements you are receiving," he said.

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