Editors note: A referendum held April 26 on the proposed budget will include polling from noon to 8 p.m. This version corrects the time of the referendum.
STONINGTON — Adjustments to the proposed budget will allow town officials to move forward with a plan that would create a slight reduction in the mill rate, even with a significant increase in spending.
Stonington officials are preparing to forward a $76.75 million combined general government, education and capital improvement spending plan to voters that represents a $3.6 million increase, or nearly 4.7%, over the previous year. The proposal is expected to be sent to the annual town meeting on April 13.
Despite the increase and need for additional tax revenues, increases in the grand list and adjustments, including use of fund balance, would lead to a 0.19 reduction in the town’s mill rate. If approved as presented, the plan would reduce the rate from 23.85 to 23.66, a 0.8% decrease.
“This is a budget that came from a compassionate, insightful discussion by members of the Board of Finance,” First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said. “For years, we had built up the reserve fund, and with the cost of living up, it was time to dip into that to offset increases.”
Although the decisions on several changes were far from unanimous, members of the Board of Finance ended a month of deliberations on Tuesday evening by passing a final proposal onto the voters for consideration. The board’s final budget proposal came following a public hearing that saw some ask for further reductions in spending while others sought to see additional money dedicated to various efforts.
In the end, finance board members settled on a compromise that led to the $76.75 million proposal and utilized a 3.6% increase in the grand list and $1.5 million from the fund balance to lower the mill rate for taxpayers.
In dipping into the fund balance, Chesebrough noted that town policy calls for Stonington to maintain a reserve with two months of operating funds, plus an additional $1 million. The reserve is more than $5 million beyond the two months of operating funds at this point, she said, and would remain at a healthy level even after using the $1.5 million to offset expenses in the upcoming budget.
Timothy O’Brien, chairman of the Board of Finance, urged civility in discussions as it became apparent that some had varying opinions on how to move forward. O’Brien also urged residents to consider, as he has at recent meetings, that “there are many worthwhile investments presented in the budget each year, but only so much money that can be expended.”
The budget to be sent to voters includes $25.27 million for general government operations, $38.98 million for education, $7.73 million for debt service and $4.76 million for capital improvements. General government spending is up by nearly $1.4 million, while education spending would increase by just $600,000 in the upcoming year. Debt liability would also drop by $300,000.
The proposal calls for a significant increase in capital spending, with $4.76 million allocated for the coming year. In the previous two years, the town had approved capital improvement spending of $2.77 million and $2.44 million respectively.
Blunt White, a Republican and former member of the Board of Finance, has remained a vocal opponent of the increased spending and use of the fund balance to offset town expenses. The town’s budget proposal represents one of the highest single-year increases in spending since he began tracking the numbers in 2008, he argued, and provides taxpayer relief only by dipping heavily into reserves.
“The net grand list grew by 3.6%, the highest grand list growth since 2008,” he said. “This budget proposes much higher spending, and isn’t balanced, so it must dip into fund balance.”
Following a lengthy review process on Tuesday, which saw members of the Board of Finance review capital items one-by-one, only a few reductions were made. Chesebrough said officials had hoped to reduce expenses further, but would not be able to do so without eliminating necessary projects such as road and infrastructure repairs.
“How do you say ‘No we aren’t going to repair that sea wall that is crumbling,’ or ‘We aren’t going to finish this road that doesn’t end?’” Chesebrough asked. “We went line by line through everything but there are projects that need to be done.”
Other increases in capital improvements spending include funding for sidewalks, including a major project set to begin along the Route 1 corridor, and money to begin addressing HVAC repairs and maintenance needs at Stonington Middle School. The HVAC project funding was cut from $900,000 to $500,000, however.
Chesebrough said for the town, the increased capital spending is part of a shift that began less than a decade ago. Following years of little to no funding for projects, the town added a long-term road reconstruction plan in 2016, and the upcoming budget will be the first to also include an infrastructure repair schedule designed to more directly address fixes for the town’s bridges, she said.
With the Board of Finance having approved a tentative budget, members of the board will hold a meeting at 1 p.m. Friday to put out the call for the annual financial town meeting.
The annual town meeting will then be held on April 13 to send the budget to referendum for vote, in accordance with the town charter.
The annual budget referendum will then be held from noon to 8 p.m. on April 26. Districts 1 and 3 will vote at the Stonington Fire House, 100 Main St. in Stonington; District 2 will vote at the Former Pawcatuck Middle School, 40 Field St. in Pawcatuck; and Districts 4 and 5 will vote at the B.F. Hoxie Engine Co., 34 Broadway Ave. in Mystic.
Residents eligible to vote may also seek an absentee ballot for the upcoming referendum. Absentee ballots will be available at Stonington Town Hall through the Town Clerk’s Office beginning on April 5.
More details of the budget proposal, including copies of all budget documents, are available on the town’s website at stonington-ct.gov.