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A Frame of Reference for Budget Season

Comparing proposed expenditures in East Hampton with similar-sized towns

The process of adopting a local budget for the coming fiscal year took a giant step last week as the East Hampton Board of Education adopted its $26.61 million education budget. The budget process is, as always, an important discussion because it impacts everyone as taxpayers and as consumers of town services. 

It is a task made more challenging because when people make most decisions about how to spend their money, they compare the potential purchases. But when deciding what to buy as a community, the only good frame of reference is what was spent last year.  Thus, spending more becomes a proxy for improving services and spending less becomes a stand-in for holding the line on taxes with plenty of room left for subjective judgments in between.

Though imperfect because each town faces slightly different situations and chooses to handle them in a plethora of ways, it remains helpful to make some historical comparisons for context. According to the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, there are a handful of towns with about the same population as East Hampton’s estimated 12,685 residents: Coventry (12,207 residents), Oxford (12,734) and Windsor Locks (12,495) each have their Fiscal Year 2010-2011 budgets available electronically for comparison.

As total budgets, the four towns were quite similar. East Hampton’s $38 million budget was slightly higher than Coventry’s $36.2 million, slightly lower than Windsor Lock’s $43.1 million and about the same as the Oxford budget at $38.6 million. 

The board of education budgets are the single largest line item in each town’s budget, comprising 68 percent of the total budget in East Hampton and Coventry, 66 percent of the budget in Oxford, and 63 percent in Windsor Locks. Education spending on a per resident basis was much the same. For all the rhetoric about local control of schools, virtually identical education budgets and per resident spending on education figures suggest that either everyone does it the same way on accident or because it is mostly mandated from Washington or Hartford.

As long as we believe that Washington and Hartford always do things the best way possible, we are in good shape.

Public safety spending has been a contentious issue, to say the least, in East Hampton. In comparison to the similar towns, though, this line item is in the middle of the pack at $157.96 per resident. Oxford spent $138.73 per person while Windsor Locks spent more than double at $329.24, likely due to the residual effects of having Connecticut’s largest airport within its borders. Ten percent of the Windsor Locks’ total budget went to public safety compared with just 6 percent in East Hampton.

East Hampton budgeted $941,080 for culture and recreation programming in FY 2010-2011, a sum twice that of Coventry’s $466,986 and Oxford’s $435,014.  Windsor Locks, on the other hand, spent $788,922.  This was the only major category in which East Hampton spent the most of the comparison towns.

After a punishing winter and the promise of a very busy spring of patching potholes, public works budgets are a challenge in every Connecticut town. As a spending matter, however, the line items are all in line at about 5 percent of each budget.

The most encouraging comparison for East Hampton comes on the debt service line. Without the exercise of proper caution, this expenditure can easily come to consume government budgets. At the state level for example, Connecticut spends more on debt service each month than it spends annually on the Department of Environmental Protection. East Hampton, on the other hand, spent only about 4 percent of its total budget on debt service payments compared with 8 percent in Coventry and Oxford and 6 percent in Windsor Locks, saving taxpayers more than a half a million dollars compared with those in other communities.

The problem with comparing municipal budgets is that each town is so different and is engaged by widely different circumstances and factors that virtually every comparison can be dismissed as flawed. With this caution in mind, though, such an analysis can give context to the budget discussions ahead and offers more than just what was spent last year.

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