'Difficult' budget decisions loom as East Lyme finance board weighs staffing requests –

East Lyme — Board of Finance members this week said staffing increases in the proposed $81.34 million 2022-23 budget are going to be “difficult” to reckon with amid current economic realities affecting residents whose property taxes pay for town services.

The proposal from the school and selectmen boards represents a total increase of $3.35 million, or 4.30%, over the current budget.

Staffing requests on the town side include several positions in public safety, information technology and human relations. On the school side, three of the roughly 12 positions added at the start of the school year with federal American Rescue Plan dollars will have to be absorbed into the operating budget if they’re going to continue.

Democrat Peter DeRosa at Monday’s finance board meeting said requests for new positions are an “easy target” when it comes to deciding where to make cuts in order to come up with a budget number taxpayers will approve.

Targets become harder to find once they are entrenched in the annual operating budget, where contractual, fixed costs such as salaries, benefits and utilities, make up the bulk of expenses that rise with each new budget cycle.

Recent year-over-year budget increases look like this: 2.29% in 2017, 1.35% in 2018, 2.52% in 2019, 2.7% in 2020, and 2.37% in the current budget.

The total proposed budget includes $54.61 million approved last month by the Board of Education, as well as a spending plan crafted by Republican First Selectman Kevin Seery comprising $20.42 million for general government, $5.67 million in debt service and $700,660 in capital spending. That shakes out increases of 4.59% on the education side and 3.69% on the town side.

Included in the general government spending plan are two new police officers, two dispatchers, a firefighter, information technology director and part-time human resources assistant.

Of the roughly dozen positions in the education budget originally funded with federal pandemic-relief aid, budget documents show eight are slated to be covered in the coming year by what’s left of the district’s allocation. That leaves an elementary math coach, a middle school social worker and a part-time school psychologist to be funded by town taxpayers.

The finance board has been listening to presentations from department heads over the past month. Seery, after sitting in on pitches by department heads, including Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton and police Chief Mike Finkelstein, said they all made “excellent cases” for the additional hires.

“But here again, we all realize there are limits to what can be done,” Seery said. He added that the town will continue to provide the best possible services.

Finance Board Chairwoman Denise Hall, a Republican, said the emphasis will be on safety — “and definitely bearing in mind what everyone’s going through with inflation and gas prices and everything else.”

Public safety

The $3.03 million proposed police budget as approved by selectmen comes in at an increase of $129,079, or 4.46%, over the current year.

Finkelstein, who negotiated a new employment contract last year that raised his base pay by roughly 20% to $135,000, wrote in budget documents that the raise brings him from the lowest paid chief in the region to the “middle salary range.”

This week, he said making $15,000 to $50,000 less than leaders of nearby police departments saved the town $80,000 to $200,000 in his first five years as the independent police force’s inaugural chief.

He told the finance board a portion of his salary is reimbursable from the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security because he also serves as the emergency management director within the Millstone nuclear power plant emergency preparedness zone. Most recently, the agency reimbursed the town $50,303.

The contract also specifies his annual emergency management director stipend will rise from $10,000 to $22,000 on July 1.

Finkelstein said the request for two additional officers is part of a Police Commission plan to hire a pair of officers each year for six budget cycles, starting in 2021. The finance board last year — with some members supporting no new officers and others supporting two — compromised by including one officer in the budget that ultimately passed at referendum.

Finkelstein’s presentation outlined a current staff of 26 full-time officers, including the chief, two lieutenants, six patrol sergeants, two detectives, 13 patrol officers, a school resource officer and a federal task force officer.

Two more officers would allow the department to schedule an additional officer for 10 shifts per week, according to the chief. The department typically staffs one sergeant and two patrol officers per shift, which is the required minimum.

He said those numbers come as a surprise to some people, especially during the busier, more populated summer months. “That’s a difficult thing, on Saturday in July at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, to know that’s all that’s on the streets policing your town,” he said.

Though he said he didn’t have statistics yet to prove it, staffing in excess of the required minimum patrol numbers should reduce overtime costs. That’s because with three officers and a sergeant on shift, one officer could call out and the department still would have enough to meet the minimum requirement.

Finkelstein told the board he can’t say if two additional officers is “a financially achievable goal.” But he said it’s where the Police Commission, through research and data crunching, has determined staffing needs to be in order for officers to “properly do the job we’re entrusted to do.”

The request for two full-time dispatchers would allow for two people on each shift around the clock, according to Finkelstein. Currently, only one dispatcher is assigned to overnight shifts.

“We’ve had several incidents that have happened over the years where we’ve had a structure fire and an accident with entrapment at the same time on a midnight shift,” Finkelstein said. “That’s almost unimaginable for a dispatcher to be able to handle at one time by yourself.”

The Board of Selectmen previously cut in half a request from Niantic Fire Department Chief Jim Barone for two additional firefighters at $56,181 each. One new hire would bring the staff of full-time firefighters to six.

Citing an increasing number of calls and a decrease in the availability of volunteers, Barone said his department should be asking for three more firefighters — “but we’ll take one and we’ll work with it.”

A $105,000 information technology director was outlined for the finance board earlier this month by public works Director Joe Bragaw, whose department along with Finkelstein’s currently takes an active role in administration of IT services.

Bragaw said the new director would oversee technology at town facilities and would have to keep up with technological advances in emergency services. Police and dispatch equipment recently was upgraded as part of the move to the new public safety hub on West Main Street.

The finance board is tasked by the town charter with reviewing budget proposals from the selectmen and school boards. The finance board can make itemized cuts on the town side, and can specify a bottom line for the school board to decide how to implement. A caveat is that the education budget cannot be below the current year’s spending level.

A public hearing is scheduled for April 25 and the budget referendum is slated for May 19.

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