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East Lyme to trim town, education budgets before moving to Board of Finance

East Lyme — As towns statewide have been permitted to shift budget procedures in light of the ongoing public health emergency, education and town officials agreed Wednesday night to significantly trim the proposed 2020-21 budgets before the Board of Finance deliberates and approves a final spending plan in May.

The move, though unprecedented, would streamline the budget process that now must be done remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also will better allow selectmen and the school board to adjust their own budgets before going to the Board of Finance for final deliberations.

After the Board of Selectmen forwarded a proposed $77.6 million budget to the finance board last month, First Selectman Mark Nickerson had stressed significant cuts would be needed to reduce an estimated 1.5-mill increase, to minimize the burden on taxpayers.

The proposed budget, which includes the town’s spending plan, capital spending, debt service and the school’s proposed $52 million budget, represents a 4.6%, or $3.4 million, increase over this year’s spending plan.

The proposed education budget, which shows a 4.98%, or about $2.7 million, increase over this year’s $49 million spending plan, proposed hiring several new teachers and staff members, as well as advancements in information technology infrastructure and significant equipment purchases.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the economic downturn that the coronavirus pandemic may bring,” finance board Chairwoman Camille Alberti said at Wednesday’s virtual special meeting. “I am grateful to the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education for offering to revisit their original budgets and consider adjustments to our board.”

In an effort to provide “procedural relief” amid the public health emergency, Gov. Ned Lamont has waived requirements that municipalities hold town meetings, town votes or referendums typically required to adopt annual budgets. The Board of Finance, then, will adopt and pass the overall budget in late May, as well as set the mill rate, without a referendum.

Typically, the Board of Finance holds its budget deliberations throughout April before adopting the budget, sending it to public hearing and then a referendum.

“I promise we will do our very best to adopt the most responsible budget possible, given the uncertainty of the economic fallout from the pandemic,” Alberti said. “In return, I ask the residents of East Lyme to believe in our board’s commitment to not abuse the power that has been bestowed on our board by the governor.”

Alberti added there was a potential bright side to postponing budget deliberations until May, describing the change as “a blessing in disguise” as the Board of Finance “will be in a better position to assess the impact of COVID-19 on our local economy.”

Nickerson and Finance Director Anna Johnson said while the Board of Selectmen revises the town budget, town officials also are working out how to receive reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for any spending related to the coronavirus, as well as a deferment plan the town will enact to allow eligible residents affected by the COVID-19 a 90-day grace period on paying property taxes typically due July 1.

Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said at Wednesday’s meeting that while his board had already frozen its budget before the pandemic hit because of some special education cost overruns and student outplacements, “which are costing us a lot of money," his board is "taking the budget seriously."

“We know a 4.98% (increase) is not appropriate with what’s going on in this community and we are really working hard to make some reductions and plan on bringing that information forward soon,” Newton said.

As discussed at Wednesday’s meeting, the selectmen and school board will review and adjust their budgets over the coming weeks before submitting them to the Board of Finance in early May. The Board of Finance then will enter into budget deliberations held via virtual meetings over several days throughout mid-May before approving the budget and setting the mill rate May 27.

The public will be able to tune in to all virtual meetings. Information will be posted to the town website, eltownhall.com, about how to either call or log in to the meeting from a phone or computer.

The public also will have many chances to submit comments and questions about the budget, either posting their questions and comments on a page the town is setting up on its website, or by email. The newly revised budget also will be posted online for the public to review before the Board of Finance passes it.

m.biekert@theday.com 

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