As Town Manager, I am pleased to present to the public a budget that will provide the Town and Board of Education with the funding it requires to maintain presently offered services while delivering an estimated lower mill rate of 27.06, a 6.48 mill decrease from our current mill rate of 33.54. This budget has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that the numbers you are receiving are accurate and holistic to the greatest extent possible, and I wholeheartedly hope that my fellow Winchester residents will support the budget as presented.
The past three years have forced all municipalities across the country, including Winchester, to face new trends that are driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and other events with global impact. Last March, I wrote in this same budget cover letter to the Selectmen that the United States had seen a 7.9% inflation rate between February 2021 and February 2022, a rate not rivaled in over 40 years. In the year since then, we have seen an additional 6.2% inflation rate, which has compounded with the inflation seen in the years prior to total a two-year inflation rate of approximately 14.59%. This rate is measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a nationwide basis; regionally, Winchester has been subjected to even higher electricity and fuel rate increases than have been seen in other parts of the country.
Beyond inflation, we continue to be impacted by the catastrophes of the past. COVID-19 complicated our ability to do business in a normal and consistent manner. As a result we are doing more than ever online, providing new services to our residents, but with increased software costs. COVID-19 disrupted the ability of our children to learn in a typical classroom environment for multiple years, and educational needs are now greater than ever as we work to lessen any learning deficits that arose. The past theft of Town money by a former Director of Finance left our town in a position where it had significant infrastructure improvements that needed to be made and no money on-hand to complete the work. This is finally being rectified through the approval of the 2022 Infrastructure Improvement Plan, which was approved in May 2022 and authorized $24.7 million in new spending on infrastructure projects with the help of Town bonding and state and federal grants. While an important investment, this effort also puts upward pressures on our budget. There have also been consistent efforts to reduce Winchester’s spending and the mill rate (tax levy) in the past several years. While it is my philosophy, as Town Manager and as a resident of the Town of Winchester myself, to keep the mill rate as low as possible while delivering the highest possible level of service, continuous downward pressure on Winchester’s ability to grow in this timeframe has led to a deficiency of resources for the Town and Board of Education in recent years, which continues to drive up pressure on the proposed FY 2024 budget.
Resilience & Growth
Despite these challenges, Winchester has shown itself to be a bastion of resilience and growth. Since I came aboard as Town Manager in April 2021, the Town has seen over 20 businesses open with more on the way, we are seeing increased enrollment in our youngest classes within Winchester Public Schools, and we have seen more new residents enthusiastically join our town. In 2022 alone, the Town applied for and received over $5.5 million in competitive grant awards, a feat not seen in recent decades in town, if ever. We all know the poor condition that many of our roadways are in, and we are starting to make greater investments in our essential infrastructure. We are making concerted efforts in Town Hall to make our municipality a more welcoming and enjoyable place to do business, and we have invested in our local businesses to help bring new businesses and jobs to town and enhance the look of our downtown. These are all positive trends that require monetary investment to continue.
The Town Manager’s Proposed FY 2024 Budget includes a 5.54% increase in budgetary expenditures over the FY 2023 Adopted Budget. While this may seem high, it is fairly low compared to the two-year inflation rate of just over 14.5% that the nation has suffered, and it is on-par with many other municipalities across the state. Bloomfield, CT has come in with an 8.8% requested increase, Southington is proposing a 6.6% increase, Granby presented a 5.33% request, and Windham has proposed a 13.6% increase. Winchester is not alone, but it is accomplishing a proportionately greater amount of work for less money than many other municipalities. To continue to see improvements and achieve success, investments are needed.
On the education side of our budget, the requested total includes a 1.62% increase in the Winchester Public Schools budget request and a 32.66% increase in the requested Town Support for Education line (2.95% when combined). The Gilbert School’s request to the Winchester Board of Education, which was passed along to us through the Winchester Board of Education, totals $8,301,718, which is a 5.67% increase over their FY 2023 budget total. These requests are again in line with trends we are seeing across the state, with the Board of Education in Cromwell requesting a 6.94% increase and the Board of Education in Waterford requesting a 5.99% increase. It is important to note that absolutely no changes have been made to the education budget as it was presented to the Town Manager’s Office by the Board of Education.
On the Town’s side, we see a 6.85% requested increase for operating expenses, a 5.23% increase in capital improvement expenses, and a larger 24.21% increase in debt service costs. Please note that the Capital Improvement numbers in the chart above, as well as the Board of Education numbers, include fund balance allocations in FY 2023 and the proposed fund balance allocation for FY 2024 to be both transparent and provide readers with an “apples-to-apples” comparison. $893,346 was allocated from fund balance to the capital fund in FY 2023, and we are proposing that the fund balance allocation remain level in FY 2024. While the Town’s proposed debt service allocation may look like a large increase in a single year, this is offset on the revenues side by a proposed $171,081 transfer in from the Debt Service Fund, decreasing the impact felt by the taxpayers in this area.
This is a visual representation of the various increases the Town Manager’s Proposed Budget includes, by percent:
If adopted as presented, the Town Manager’s Proposed FY 2024 Budget would result in the following allocations to our major budget categories: