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Ledyard - Criticism of the proposed 2014-15 budget was split at Monday's public hearing between the rising tax rate and slowly accumulating cuts to the school programs.
Dozens packed the Ledyard High School auditorium Monday evening - a stark departure from last year's hearing, which was attended by an audience a fraction of the size.
The crowd was drawn by the proposed overall 6.4 percent budget increase which includes a 10.4 percent increase for general government and 3.2 percent for education - increases driven by rising employee health insurance costs and retirement funding.
Still, presentations of the $22.5 million general government budget and the $30.7 million education budget aimed to paint a fiscal picture of balance between frugality and maintaining services.
Gordon Strickland, chairman of the Board of Education's finance committee, said one-third of the increase comes from personnel while another third is due to rising special education costs. The remainder consists of maintenance and utility costs, and an increase in magnet-school tuition.
Strickland said that the school budget has increased overall by 4.3 percent from 2009 to 2013, while the rate of inflation is double that.
Criticism of the school budget seemed more about the risks of stinginess, commenting on previous years of flat-funding that many said contributed to this year's jump. Several students stood up to praise the district's athletics and express fears about budgetary impacts; others bemoaned a dwindling staff and increased use of study hall, which one called a "waste of time."
"Our kids are going to magnet schools for a reason," said Dawn Debrodt, a teacher in Groton who went through the Ledyard schools and has two children in them now.
But the bulk of the feedback on the $53.3 million spending plan pushed forward by the Town Council earlier this month skewed heavily toward taxpayer burden. If the budget is approved in May, taxpayers will face their second increase in as many years after four years of no increase. This year's three-tenths of a mill raised few eyebrows but the proposed 2.25-mill increase would push the tax rate past 30 mills, which many residents called unacceptable.
Residents repeatedly stressed that they are not a bottomless revenue source, and that the proposed tax rate will only deter families and businesses from the area. Others said they simply would not be able to afford to live in town anymore.
Paul Maugle, who owns the local Sierra Maugle Vineyard, was among them, noting that tax increases will not only keep businesses out, but could even drive ones already here away, joking that his land would make a good parking lot for casino visitors.
"It's about how we run our business. Can we run it smarter, please?" he said. "Stop raising our taxes. Stop it. Figure it out, and do it better."
Town councilors seemed to anticipate this consensus when they hesitantly voted two weeks ago to bring the spending plan to its first public hearing. Councilor Kevin Dombrowski was the only one to vote no, but others made it clear that the plan was one the town could not afford, and that an 8 percent tax increase is too high.
The budget will go back to the Town Council final approval before the annual town meeting on May 20, which will adjourn to the referendum the following day.