Preston officials receive petition to add second resident state trooper

Preston – A petition submitted by residents seeking to reinstate the second resident state trooper cut from the budget last spring has renewed tensions between the boards of selectmen and finance that nearly led to a lawsuit a month ago over a similar dispute.

The Board of Selectmen voted at a special meeting Thursday to send the issue to a town meeting and will set the schedule and wording for the call of the meeting next Thursday. The town meeting likely will be held Nov. 2, First Selectman Robert Congdon said.

The petition was prompted by several home burglaries in recent weeks, Congdon said.

On Wednesday, over objections from about a dozen residents in attendance, the Board of Finance rejected the petitioners’ request to fund the estimated $149,000 cost for the second resident state trooper at this point in the fiscal year.

That vote renewed the apparent contradiction in state laws that govern the town. One statute requires the Board of Selectmen call a town meeting within 21 days if at least 20 residents file a petition asking for a special town meeting on a certain topic. The town clerk’s office certified that at least 20 registered Preston voters did sign the petition titled “To reinstate the second resident state trooper position for the remainder of the 2017-18 fiscal year.”

But a second state statute gives the Board of Finance the authority to make recommendations to the town meeting on any spending item. If the Board of Finance denies the funding for the item, the town cannot spend the money.

“With the Board of Finance having taken a position, the town meeting is frivolous,” Board of Finance Chairman Norman Gauthier said after Thursday’s selectmen meeting.

Congdon, however, said selectmen were obligated to schedule a town meeting at the request of the petitioning residents. He agreed that without Board of Finance approval of the funding, the town could not hire a second resident trooper.

“But I personally believe the voters have a right to be heard on issues such as this,” Congdon said. “And the Board of Finance has the right and the obligation to determine whether it’s financially harmful to the town to appropriate the money.”

Gauthier said some finance board members indicated Wednesday that they would be willing to revisit the issue if the state approves a budget that does not bring the draconian cuts to Preston’s grants called for in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s executive order in place without an approved budget.

A similar issue led to heated debate and a threat by the Board of Finance to sue the Board of Selectmen in September over a request by the Board of Education to allow seven nonunion school employees to join the state Municipal Employees’ Retirement System. Town government employees already are in the system.

The Board of Finance voted against appropriating the $780,000 required to fund the system over time. The Board of Selectmen were conflicted between the school board’s request to schedule a town meeting and the lack of approval for the appropriation. The town attorney initially ruled that the selectmen should schedule a town meeting, but then reversed the ruling based on the finance board’s rejection of the funding.

Congdon said selectmen again will ask for an attorney’s opinion on what selectmen should do if a town board or commission makes a request for a town meeting.

“If a board or commission sends a request to the Board of Selectmen for an issue to schedule a town meeting, is that vote considered petition? I think we’re going to get an attorney ruling on that.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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