Waterford Board of Selectmen approve nearly $47 million budget

Waterford — The Board of Selectmen passed its proposed 2020-21 budget Tuesday night, a $46,879,208 spending plan that is 2.1% higher than the current one.

Deliberations continue, with the Board of Finance to next consider the budget before it moves to the Representative Town Meeting for a final say. Those boards can cut from the proposed budget but cannot add to it.

The selectmen's total government operations budget came to $34,672,018, but capital and debt service obligations amounted to an extra $12,207,190.

The $46,879,208 total does not include the Board of Education's budget, which the Board of Education as well as the finance board and RTM consider. Superintendent Thomas Giard's $51,006,143 proposal, $25,192,795 of which goes toward instructional salaries, is awaiting approval from the school board; $7,989,060 more goes to employee benefits. Other line items include support salaries, $6,760,281; transportation, $2,538,628; tuition, $2,481,735; operation and maintenance of buildings, $2,030,918; contracted services, $1,757,247; books and supplies, $384,809, and others.

"It's a 3.38% increase from last year," Giard said. "The four areas that drove the increase were contractual salary increases, health insurance, transportation and additional staff necessary to meeting special education student needs. The entirety of the remainder of the budget is a 0.32% increase."

"The cornerstone of any community is a quality school system," Giard added. "What the board tasks me to do each year is to present them with a budget that meets their goals and provides high quality education for students."

This year's budget is First Selectman Rob Brule's first true test in his new role — he replaced longtime First Selectman Daniel Steward after defeating Selectwoman Elizabeth Sabilia in the November 2019 election.

For two weeks at the beginning of the new year, Brule was without a finance director heading into an important budget formation period. He thanked Donald Gray, the interim finance director, for his assistance.

Brule said he made a concerted effort to hold the line at last year's $45,930,439 number. What has driven expenses up, according to Brule and Retirement Commission member Susan Driscoll, is the Retirement Commission's budget, which increased 14.6% from last year, the largest such hike.

Other Post-Employment Benefits is the chief culprit — it's what state and local governments provide to retired employees aside from pensions. The Board of Selectmen is recommending $1.4 million go toward paying off its approximately $22 million OPEB debt.

The selectmen approved a $6,282,978 Retirement Commission budget. Brule said he wouldn't be surprised if the finance board or RTM cut that some, but the selectmen wanted to look forward in paying off the debt.

"With retirement, we're trying be proactive, and we're making a difficult decision," Brule said. "We're trying to make up for a significant reduction last year, but we can't make it all up in one year. Last year it was around $750,000 allocated for OPEB, now to get back on track we had to pay between $1.3 (million) and $1.5 million."

During Tuesday's meeting, Sabilia agreed with Brule that the town is being proactive in paying off its debts. Brule noted on Thursday that the town is at its debt service — bonding for schools and other projects — peak, meaning that the number will go down in future years.

Some of the other large department budgets are police, $6,450,741; Public Works, $4,689,207; fire services, $3,102,392; Recreation & Parks, $1,519,608; the Waterford Public Library, $1,073,193, and Emergency Management, $1,087,258.

Asked about the police department's 2.1% increase, Brule defended the decision.

"I'm not going to jeopardize the safety of our residents," Brule said. "Chief (Brett) Mahoney's budget originally came in at a 2.6% increase. I sent it back, he worked with me, and his team returned with a half-percent reduction. I appreciated that."

The town is planning on implementing townwide WiFi to combat cybersecurity concerns, connecting the school board, departments and other areas under one system — an initiative led by Mahoney, who also serves as the municipal Information Technologies director. This year's IT budget went up 2.3% from last year, and the selectmen approved $824,968 for it.

Brule opened the Board of Selectmen's several public budget meetings with a statement thanking department heads and describing the work that went into the final proposal.

"Over the past two months, department heads have worked diligently with their staff, commission and boards to prepare a general government budget, excluding retirement and insurance, of a 0.2% increase," Brule said. "To get to this point has been a process. It has taken well over 50 individual department heads meeting since early December, and diligence to reduce $550,000 within original department budgets, effectively, efficiently and without jeopardizing the quality of services the town of Waterford provides its residents."

s.spinella@theday.com

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