IN THE REGION — The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments approved an operating budget of $1.1 million for fiscal year 2020-21 on Wednesday at a meeting of first selectmen, mayors, and other chief operating officers from its 22 member towns and boroughs at Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant.
This new budget will take effect in just over six months, starting on July 1, 2020.
SCCOG Executive Director James Butler said that this budget is “my best projection of where the SCCOG’s finances will be next fiscal year,” according to a report to the SCCOG executive committee at their December 2 meeting. The executive committee recommended passing the budget and sent it to the full council for approval on Wednesday, December 18.
Butler said that he had to plan for some uncertainty in state funding but that most of the budget line items show little or no increase over the current fiscal year 2019-20.
This budget could still be amended before July 2020, Butler said, if SCCOG secures other sources of revenue.
“Potential sources of revenue not included at this time are any grants we choose to apply for during the year, but after the budget is adopted, and possible future [state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security] grants,” he told the executive committee. “These revenues and associated expenditures can be included in amended budgets if they were to materialize.”
This 2020-21 budget, at $1,148,948, is 12.3 percent less than the budget approved for the current fiscal year 2019-20, of $1,300,656. Most of this change due to the fact that, for 2019-20, SCCOG received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to conduct a study of how area towns can continue to accommodate military housing and transportation needs related to General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton and the Naval Submarine Base in New London.
Most of this change due to the fact that, for 2019-20, SCCOG received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to conduct a study of how area towns can continue to accommodate military housing and transportation needs related to General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton and the Naval Submarine Base in New London.
As one of Connecticut’s nine regional councils of government, SCCOG’s duties include coordinating transportation planning for the region, supporting intergovernmental cooperation, and offering advisory expertise to member towns. Its offices are in Norwich and its member towns stretch from about East Lyme to Stonington and north to Lebanon.
Staff salaries are the biggest expense
For fiscal year 2020-21, staff salaries, benefits, insurance, and retirement account for about $904,000, or about 78 percent of the total budget. In 2019-20, the total costs of salaries and benefits total $860,000, meaning that total expense increased roughly 5 percent going into the 2020-21 budget.
Butler told the executive committee that this budget would have SCCOG’s staff receiving 3 percent increases in their salaries for 2020-21. It also includes an expanded position for SCCOG Assistant Director Amanda Kennedy, changing her title to deputy director and director of special projects, as well as 5 percent raise, according to Butler’s December 2 report.
“This year I again recommend that staff receive a 3% salary increase,” Butler said, “due to several factors including sufficient anticipated funds, the fact that we have assembled and wish to retain a team of top-notch staff, which applied for, received, and successfully managed consultants working on numerous grants, as well as completing the rest of the adopted work program and resultant clean audits.”
Revenue uncertainty would impact increase to budget reserves
SCCOG’s single largest source of revenue comes from the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which is budgeted to contribute almost $546,000 to the COG in 2020-21. But for its second largest source of revenue, — the state Office of Policy and Management’s Regional Service Grant — Butler said that the state has yet to devise a formula for exactly how much regional COGs will receive for their annual bonus. OPM has set the base grant at $341,421, but the COG receives an extra bonus on top of that which is still subject to change.
Acknowledging this uncertainty, Butler budgeted for $387,500 and said that the variable OPM funding will affect how much the COG can put in its reserves.
“For FY 2021, I propose a return to the Reserve Fund of $130,170, which is a high figure, and one that probably will not be realized,” Butler reported to the executive committee. “However, as stated above, at this time of year our revenue picture for the following fiscal year is always uncertain, and rather than propose hiring new staff or contracting with more consultants at this time, I would rather suggest we take a conservative approach, and use the unbudgeted revenues from all sources to cover operating costs in the event we incur further reductions in State aid.”
Butler said at the same time that the COG’s most recent audit showed them to have just under $664,000 in their reserve fund, of which about $200,000 is available for discretionary use.
The COG’s third largest source of revenue is dues from member towns, which totaled $157,688 in the fiscal year 2020-21 budget and has not increased since fiscal year 2012-13.
“The SCCOG last increased its dues in FY 2012-13 (which was the first time in six years),” Butler told the executive committee, “and no increase is proposed this year due to the fact that our funding from other sources is sufficient.”
East Lyme First Selectmen elected SCCOG chair for 2020
At the same meeting of the full SCCOG board on December 18, the council elected East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson to serve as its chair for the coming year. Nickerson was the vice chair of SCCOG this past year.
“I certainly wouldn’t accept the chairmanship of this organization without the fine leadership we have both in staff and of course executive director, and all the mentors I’ve had sitting in on these meetings for the last five years,” Nickerson said upon accepting the role. “Towns coming together can only be a good thing.”