Preston budget going to voters in May

Preston - The Board of Finance will send the $11.2 million school budget and the $3.3 million town government budget to voters after remaining split on whether to support a move to add full-day preschool to the school system.

The board voted 4-2 following Thursday's budget hearing to keep the proposed budgets intact for voters to approve or defeat. Board of Finance members Andy Bilodeau and Kenneth Zachem were opposed.

The Board of Selectmen will hold a special meeting at 7 tonight to set the town meeting for May 1 and the referendum for May 13.

Board of Finance Chairman Jerry Grabarek said he cast the deciding vote to approve the budgets, although he does not support the $185,000 included in the school budget to create the universal full-day preschool program. Grabarek said he had not heard enough opposition at the public hearing to warrant cutting the budget.

"If it fails (at referendum), then we'll have a mandate to cut it," Grabarek said.

Residents can vote to cut the budgets at the town meeting before sending them to referendum.

Superintendent John Welch said he was pleased at the support expressed by residents during the public hearing. He said he looks forward to explaining the proposed preschool program again to voters at the May 1 town meeting.

If residents approve the town and school budget proposals, the Board of Finance will have to tackle its next controversial issue - whether to use enough money from the town's healthy surplus fund to avoid any tax increase in the coming fiscal year.

At the March 31 meeting, the board proposed using $500,000 from the surplus to hold the tax burden to a 0.37-mill increase over this year's tax rate of 23.7 mills. The board agreed to keep 9.5 percent of the annual budget - $1.4 million in surplus funds - untouched to ensure a good bond rating for the town.

Board member Norman Gauthier said even with that amount in reserve, the town has enough money in surplus to avoid any tax increase next year.

The Board of Finance won't set the tax rate until after voters approve a final budget at a referendum.

First Selectman Robert Congdon said he believes the finance board is "in the right place" with the proposed 0.37-mill tax increase. He would not support using additional surplus funds to offset taxes, he said, anticipating state revenues could be a problem a year from now, with projections that the state budget could have a $1.3 billion deficit.

Grabarek wants the board to be cautious, especially considering that the town this year received one-time revenue boosts, including permit fees from the new hotel project on Route 2 and an additional $80,000 from the state in the Mohegan-Pequot casino fund.

Congdon calculated the tax impact of the budget using the proposed tax rate of 24.07 mills. On a house assessed for $140,000, a property owner would pay an additional $52, he said. The owner of a house assessed at $210,000 would pay an additional $78, and the owner of a house assessed at $280,000 would pay an additional $104.

c.bessette@theday.com

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