Despite strong audit report, concerns about state cuts linger in Preston

Preston — The Board of Finance received a glowing audit report Thursday, with no major accounting problems detected and high praise from auditor Sandra E. Welwood of Danbury for maintaining a healthy town surplus, totaling 19 percent of annual town expenditures.

Welwood also praised town finance officials for what she called “one of the smoothest audits we’ve ever had here.”

Preston officials, however, were quick to point out that the town surplus isn’t as rosy as it appears, with the ever-changing state budget picture and a proposal on the table to spend about $61,000 to hire a second resident state trooper for the remainder of the current fiscal year. The town also has a policy of not touching 9.5 percent of the overall surplus, which totaled $2.9 million at the end of June, preserving the money for potential catastrophes.

First Selectman Robert Congdon said the actual surplus is closer to $2.2 million, with an anticipated loss of town and school revenue budgeted for this year. Setting aside the 9.5 percent could leave town budget officials with only about $686,000 in available funds to use this year, including the trooper cost if residents approve the measure at a town meeting to be scheduled soon.

Welwood acknowledged those issues, but said Preston is better poised to absorb the potential shock of a big drop in state revenues this year.

“This only helps you deal with the chaos coming from Hartford,” Welwood said. “It just means you’re not sucking wind. You’ve tried to help yourselves, with more chaos yet to come.”

Former Board of Finance Chairman Norman Gauthier credited every town department and the school board, all of which returned some unspent funds at the end of the last fiscal year. While the Board of Finance had budgeted to use $740,000 from the surplus fund to offset property tax increases, the town ended up needing only $13,684 by June 30.

Welwood added that Preston also has a “great” property tax collection rate. The town had budgeted to receive $9.28 million in property taxes last year, but ended up collecting $9.55 million, an increase of $262,871.

Halfway through the current fiscal year, town and school officials remain concerned about spending and the potential loss of state funding. State cuts enacted thus far include $399,000 from state school grants and $50,000 from grants to the town government. The General Assembly is expected to hold a special session soon with a promise to try to “soften” the cuts to towns, Congdon said, but the state budget remains out of balance.

Congdon and Superintendent Roy Seitsinger will review their respective budgets to try to identify possible cuts to absorb the state losses without drawing down the town surplus and will report back to the Board of Finance in January. The Board of Finance has scheduled a special meeting for 7 p.m. Jan. 3 with discussion of the state budget impact on Preston as one of the topics on the agenda.


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