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Friday, April 20 News

Finance panel trims budget, lowers projected tax rise

The Board of Finance on Thursday night managed to trim the tax increase projected for 2014-15, but that meant cutting new part-time positions and capital requests, as well as decreasing the allocation for the budget's contingency account.

The board's actions, which mostly failed to win support from the two Democratic members voting that night, resulted in a $286,015,872 budget, compared to the $286,766,133 spending plan for the new fiscal year forwarded by the Board of Selectmen.

The tax increase, under the recommended budget, would drop from 2.67 percent to 2.38 percent, which translates to a tax rate of 24.50 mills. The current tax rate is 23.93 mills.

The budget now goes to the Representative Town Meeting for final action.

"Budgets are about balance," finance board Chairman Thomas Flynn said. "Our board does the best we can to balance the needs versus affordability."

The Board of Education budget was approved at $156,218,057, after $500,000 earmarked for the school board's internal service fund for health-care costs was transferred to the town side. The money will still be applied to the internal service fund.

"While I want to effectuate the same thing, and increase the internal service fund by the same amount," finance member James Walsh said, "I don't think it's proper to put it on the Board of Education side ... It skews things incorrectly." And while Walsh said he trusts that the Board of Education would have used the funding for the internal service fund, "We'd have no control over whether the Board of Education actually does that."

The finance board also agreed to send a letter, along with First Selectman Michael Tetreau, to the school board asking it to apply $160,000 budgeted for school security to the internal service fund as well. They reasoned that the town is currently putting together a comprehensive school security plan that will be presented with a separate funding request.

Tetreau said if the separate security plan does not go forward, the school board would not be held to the re-allocation of funds it initially planned for security.

Last year, the Pequot Library lost its entire $350,000 in town funding when it budget went before the finance board, and it took an appeal to the RTM to get that money restored.

This year, Tetreau's proposed budget cut $25,000 from the $350,000 allocation, but the Board of Finance on Thursday put that money back.

Walsh made the motion to restore the $25,000, shortly after he said he didn't "want to overtax our taxpayers ... I'm trying to drive this budget down" to explain his support for cutting $286,000 from the contingency account.

"I struggled with this," Walsh said, but pointed out that the Pequot Library was the only non-profit that would have its town allocation cut in the new budget. "I thought we weren't going to single anyone out ... We can be selectively picking which charities we like."

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He said he would support the $25,000 reduction -- a 7.5 percent cut to the Pequot request -- if money for all of the other non-profits getting help from the cut were cut the same amount.

The suggestion that Pequot was singled out angered Tetreau, who said he interviewed all of the non-profits and looked at the services they provide to the town, if there was any duplication and if there was a way to provide that service for less. "It's not about liking somebody or not liking somebody," Tetreau said, "and I resent the inference."

Tetreau also said two other non-profits did not receive their full request, but Walsh said those two organizations had asked for more than they received the previous year, and it was that increase that was rolled back.

The first selectman said town's library system was cut the previous year and was also asked this year to freeze some expenses to help fund the Board of Education shortfall in the 2013-14 budget because of unexpected special education costs. "It seemed fair to ask the Pequot Library to do the same," Tetreau said. "You can't get the tax rate down without taking a little bit from different areas."

Finance member Chris DeWitt said it was suggested that some of the school board shortfall could come from the Pequot Library but "you opted no to."

Tetreau said it was felt that it would be more damaging to take money away from a non-profit that it had already been promised in the middle of the fiscal year.

Walsh also wanted to cut the part-time director for the Senior Center, but that motion failed on a 7-1 vote, but a part-time accountant in the Finance Department and a part-timer for the IT department were taken out of the budget. One of two health aides requested by the Health Department was cut as well.

A cut of $15,000 was approved to Fire Department's payroll account since Deputy Chief Art Reid's contract was not renewed and will expire at the end of December. Should his replacement be hired from within the department, the salary would be lower, Walsh said. Reid has been in the job for 12 years.

Finance member David Becker said next to the 2014-15 budget, the subject of the most emails and questions he's been getting from residents are about Reid. "I understand the reasoning for the cut," Becker said. "From my personal view, there's a petition out there ... I'm hoping, quite frankly, to see a reversal (of the Fire Commission decision.) There are a ton of transparency issues everyone should be concerned about."

Becker was the only member to not vote in favor the Fire Department cut.

The board shifted $586,576 from the assessor's budget to contingency because of differences of opinion regarding the Board of Finance's role in the impending property revaluation process. Several board members said they had not received a presentation on the proposed process -- plans are to do a "full data" revaluation, which includes in-person visits to all homes. An opinion the board received from the town attorney indicated that selection of a company to do the revaluation comes under the assessor's purview.

Moving the revaluation money to the contingency account was a compromise to allow the process to continue moving forward. Tetreau said a contract has to be in place by May in order to complete the property revaluation in two years.

The Conservation Department request for $16,000 to buy a used SUV denied, and the Public Works Operations budget lost a new SUV, a brush bucket and a tire balancing machine. Public works also lost $30,000 for fees and professional services, auto maintenance and repairs and communications, on top of the $53,000 cut for the vehicle and equipment.

Finance board member Robert Stone asked public works officials why they asked for these items if they can do without them.

"In a perfect world, I wouldn't want any of the items cut," Public Works Superintendent Scott Bartlett said. "Being a team player, these are the areas we could live with."

Flynn noted that board members "reached out to department heads we know we can live with."