Groton Town Manager proposes budget with no tax rate increase

Groton — Town Manager John Burt has proposed a fiscal year 2020 budget of $129,421,737, or a 2.8 percent increase over the current year's adopted budget, that would carry no tax rate increase.

The recommended budget, as it currently stands, would keep the town's tax rate at 24.17 mills by tapping into about $1.5 million from the town's fund balance, according to the proposal submitted by Burt to the Town Council and Representative Town Meeting.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28, at the Groton Senior Center.

Burt said in an interview this week that with the costs from the Groton 2020 school project over the next few years, his goal is to do everything he can to adjust the budget. Debt service is anticipated to rise by a net of about $1.37 million next year, as payments for the first bonding for the new consolidated middle school go into effect.

"The schools are well worth it, but everything I can do to minimize the increase in the mill rate I'll be recommending over the next couple of years," Burt said.

In next year's proposed budget, health insurance is up by about 7.9 percent; it would have been higher but employees switched to a high deductible plan to minimize costs, he said.

Overall, town department spending is budgeted to increase by about 3.6 percent, or $847,582, Burt said. Public Works is up overall by 5.6 percent, with the $80,000 cost to cover new stormwater requirements from the state being one part of the increase.

Information technology would rise about 5.1 percent, mostly due to software upgrades. Planning and Development would increase by about 6 percent, due to, among other things, wage increases and a few thousand dollars related to more materials for marketing properties, he said.

The finance department would increase by 9.8 percent, mostly due to the proposed addition of a full-time deputy finance director and a part-time financial assistant in the purchasing division to accommodate an uptick in activity, Burt said. He also is proposing the deputy finance director position, which was removed years ago, because finance is the only large department without a succession plan. The position would free up the finance director's time, so she can analyze, along with Burt and the assistant town manager, each town department to determine if there are any redundant services the town could cut in the future or ways to provide services more economically.

Public safety spending would rise 2.6 percent. Burt said he recommended adding back a full-time lieutenant for Groton Town police, with the idea that it will be more economical to have the position than overtime costs.

The budget proposal also adds a full-time equipment operator for Public Works, while not filling a custodian position in the department. The proposal doesn't fill an assistant to the town manager position that was vacated due to a retirement, he said.

Burt added that the town has reduced positions in the past and is at the point that if it were to cut positions, town services would be impacted.

For outside charitable organizations, he is recommending a 10 percent cut from the current year's level of funding, with the idea of making further cuts in the future. "They're all worthwhile, and I want to do it slowly, however, my focus has to be on town services," he said.

His budget further proposes a 25 percent cut to nonmandated health and services agencies, such as Groton Ambulance, Mystic River Ambulance, Mystic & Noank Library and Bill Memorial Library, with the goal to make further cuts in future years. He said that while the Town Council and RTM can look at potentially restoring that funding, the discussion needs to be had.

Burt said the recommended capital improvement projects mostly focus on maintenance and upkeep. He said the town will need to make tough decisions on whether to fund items that have fallen into disrepair. He said he has not included funding for two bridges that are "not currently usable" — the North Stonington Bridge and Quaker Farm Road Bridge — but has included them in the long-term capital plan for discussion.

He said he's able to propose taking $1.5 million from the fund balance and still maintain its health because the town received extra revenues this year, but in the long term such moves are not sustainable.

"Some fund balance use, while maintaining a 15% fund balance, is acceptable but the $1.5 million is not sustainable," he wrote in the proposal. "Changes need to be made to the current and future budgets to keep this in mind."

Burt said he's laying the groundwork for discussions on the town's direction over the next few years. Groton is expected to see an uptick in construction, especially at Electric Boat, though revenue will be tempered by the likelihood of an Enterprise Zone designation, which would come with tax breaks and will hopefully see cost savings from the reduction in schools. But he said he's concerned about a loss in revenue if the school district potentially loses its Alliance District status in the next few years; the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities anticipates that Groton would lose $4.7 million in Education Cost Sharing funds annually with the loss of that status. The town also has to prepare for potential state aid cuts or new costs for which municipalities would be responsible.  

"The town has to decide where it's going over the next few years and this is getting the discussions going," he said. 

k.drelich@theday.com

At a glance

Proposed budget at a glance

Total: $129,421,737, up $3,565,007 or 2.8 percent

Town Operations: Up $1,477,018 or 4.3 percent

Education: Up $952,168 or 1.2 percent

Capital/Debt Service: Up $1,077,979 or 14.3 percent

Outside Agencies: Down $68,615 or 3.8 percent

Subdivisions: Up $151,664 or 2.9 percent increase

($4,682,925, or 1.6 percent increase for City of Groton police, highway and streetlights; $539,859, or 16.8 percent increase for Groton Long Point police, highway, streetlights; $246,000 for Fire District payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, no increase)

Contingency: Down $100,000 or 22 percent

Source: Town Manager's proposed budget

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