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Ledyard - Town councilors hesitantly pushed forward a $53.3 million budget proposal Wednesday night, voicing several concerns over its 6.4 percent increase before voting 7 to 1 to bring it to a public hearing.
The $53,301,926 spending plan for fiscal year 2014-15 is comprised of a $22,577,064 general government budget and a $30,724,862 education budget, representing a 10.4 percent increase and a 3.47 percent increase respectively.
As a result, this would be the second year in a row that taxpayers are faced with an increase, this time of 2.25 mills, or an 8 percent increase in the tax rate. This year's increase of three-tenths of a mill - which brought the tax rate up to 28.22 mills - was the first for the town in four years.
When Mayor John Rodolico submitted his budget plan to the Town Council last month, he said the large increase was overwhelmingly driven by rising employee expenses. He cited a 46 percent increase in employee health insurance, which includes school employees, and a 22 percent increase in retirement funding.
Finance Committee Chairman Mike France said that since Rodolico made his initial proposal, the committee whittled down the general government side of the budget by about $135,000 by aligning discretionary line items with actual spending over the past three fiscal years. France said tiny deductions were made across town departments, some as low as $50.
Councilor Steve Eichelberg said he was "not entirely comfortable" with approving the budget, but said the council has a responsibility to send the proposal to taxpayers for public comments and questions, a sentiment Councilor John Marshall echoed.
"It's up to the townspeople, ultimately," Marshall said.
Councilor Bill Saums, a member of the Finance Committee, said the committee worked "very hard" to reduce the government operating side of the budget in order to present a reasonable - albeit significant - increase.
"It's what we think we have to do, not what we can afford," he said.
After France emphasized that Wednesday's vote would not be councilors' final word on the budget - it will return to them for final approval after a public hearing later this month - the council voted overwhelmingly to adopt it.
Councilor Kevin Dombrowski was the sole councilor to vote against adopting the budget. Councilor Mary McGrattan did not attend Wednesday's meeting.
A public hearing will take place at 7 p.m. April 21 in the Ledyard High School Auditorium. The town meeting will take place at 7 p.m. May 20, adjourning to the referendum May 21.