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East Lyme finalizes $76 million budget with 0.17 mill rate increase

East Lyme — At a virtual meeting Wednesday, the Board of Finance finalized the town’s 2020-21 budget, setting the tax rate at 28.36 mills — 0.17 mill higher than this year’s rate.

The finance board was able to quickly set the mill rate after holding a public hearing on the 2020-21 budget last week and spending weeks beforehand adjusting and finalizing the spending plan after the selectmen and education boards agreed to go back and further reduce their proposed budgets after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A town vote was not held on the budget this year, as an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont waived requirements that municipalities hold town meetings, town votes or referendums typically required to adopt annual budgets.

Before the selectmen, education and finance boards made their final reductions, the 2020-21 budget, which included the proposed education budget, originally was proposed at $77.6 million. Had that plan not been adjusted, taxpayers would have had to pay an additional $3.4 million more than this year’s $74.18 million spending plan.

But after weeks of adjusting the budget and finding $1.4 million in reductions — the Board of Selectmen eliminated $312,544 from the general government budget and the Board of Education eliminated $827,000 from its budget — the Board of Finance proposed an overall $76.1 million budget, representing a 2.7% increase from this year’s spending plan.

As part of the now-passed budget, general government spending is expected to increase by 1.81% with a proposed $18.8 million budget, while capital expenditures are down by 21.3% at about $649,000. Debt service is expected to rise by 3.9% with plans to spend $5.8 million over the next year.

The finance board also voted to keep the proposed $50.87 million 2020-21 education budget untouched, which is 3.3% higher than this year’s schools spending, preserving district plans to purchase portable learning devices for every student this upcoming academic year.

As has been the case in many other area towns this budget season, the finance board also decided to pull $900,000 from town savings to avoid a larger mill-rate increase.

The 0.17 mill rate increase will mean that a taxpayer with a home assessed at $250,000 will pay $7,090 next fiscal year, compared to the $7,047.50 this year — a difference of about $43 — according to numbers provided to The Day by Finance Director Anna Johnson.

The town also was able to realize a variety of savings after the finance board decided to defer hiring requested positions this upcoming year, including a position with the Public Works Department and one at the Senior Center, as well as putting off the hiring of one of the two requested police officers, saving $66,000 from the proposed public safety budget alone.

By delaying those positions, Board of Finance Chairwoman Camille Alberti said by phone earlier this month the town will save money by not having to pay those salaries for several months, or the health and dental plans for those proposed positions, which alone will save another $90,000. The move also will give the finance board time “to re-evaluate how the economy is doing and whether we can afford to hire them at all.”

Alberti added the board was able to save an additional $100,000 after adjusting how much interest will be owed on a new $10 million general obligation bond the town is taking out to pay for the now-completed elementary school project. Previously the town budgeted to pay $297,000 in interest on that bond next year but now is planning to pay $197,000, “because of the plummeting interest environment we are in,” she had said.

An additional $75,000 was saved from the tax department’s budget, Alberti said, after the town decided to reserve less money toward an upcoming revaluation.

Included in next year’s budget are still plans to hire a new police officer for $66,000, as well as additional funds to pay for part-time firefighter hours previously covered by volunteers at both the town’s fire departments, with an additional $24,420 to go toward the Flanders Fire Department and an additional $54,240 to go to the Niantic Fire Department.

The town also is planning to take out a 20-year bond to pay an estimated $650,000 for a new firetruck after the Flanders' Fire Department truck stopped functioning within the last year, forcing the town to use a loaned vehicle.

An additional $50,000 has been budgeted to pay for added information technology consulting and coverage, which currently is contracted through Star Computers, so that all IT systems, including those relied upon by public safety departments, can run 24/7, First Selectman Mark Nickerson has said.

Alberti previously has described the 2020-21 budget as a "win, win, win" for everyone, as it proposes a "minimal" tax-rate increase while still preserving new information technology advancements for both the town and schools and allows the town to add unspent money into its savings at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year.

m.biekert@theday.com

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