Preston voters can arrive at polls extra early to make budget decisions

Preston — Voters will have more time than usual on Tuesday to get to the polls and cast a vote on the proposed $11.2 million school budget, the $3.3 million town government budget and a plan to place $100,000 into a capital non-recurring account.

At the May 1 town meeting, voters agreed to extend normal budget referendum voting hours, allowing the polls to be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall, rather than opening at noon. Supporters said the move would allow young parents more of a chance to vote on the school budget, which includes the addition of full-day preschool, what proved to be the most controversial proposed expense in this spring's budget session.

The school budget overall has a 5.4 percent, $569,854 increase over this year's $10.6 million total. While some at the town meeting argued that the total is too high, discussion focused on the approximately $185,000 for the preschool program, including one additional teacher, two classroom aides and a bus driver.

An attempt to cut the budget at the town meeting failed, however, and Board of Finance Chairman Jerry Grabarek, who opposes the school budget total, said it will be up to residents to decide the school spending total. Voters and the Board of Finance cannot dictate specific program cuts, only the bottom line of the school budget.

"If the townspeople vote it down, then we'll have a clear mandate," Grabarek said. "Nobody's going to vote it down to increase it."

The general government budget drew no questions or comments at the town meeting, but veteran finance board member Kenneth Zachem said he voted against that budget as well at recent meetings.

"We didn't look deeply into the selectmen's budget," he said. "They have had a surplus and turned money back to the town (last year), so there has to be something."

The plan to place $100,000 into the capital non-recurring account survived two attempts to either cut or eliminate the funding at the town meeting, and that too will go to the voters.

The capital non-recurring account funds can remain in place if they are not needed for unforeseen expenses next year. The proposal is part of a larger issue not on Tuesday's ballot regarding Preston's healthy general fund balance. The town has a total surplus of nearly $2.2 million, well above the minimum 8 percent recommended by bond rating agencies. The Board of Finance this spring voted to increase the town's minimum reserved surplus - the amount to be left untouched for normal operating expenses - to 9.5 percent, or $1.47 million.

That leaves a projected $717,059 as "available surplus" for emergencies or to offset tax increases. The finance board voted in April to use $500,000 of that to offset taxes next year.

If the budgets pass as presented Tuesday, the Board of Finance will set the final tax rate after receiving updated projected revenue figures. As of now, the projected tax rate would be 24.07 mills, up from this year's 23.7 mills.

If you go

What: Preston budget referendum

When: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Town Hall, 389 Route 2, Preston

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