People support adding climate resilience program manager at Groton budget hearing
Groton — About a dozen people at Thursday’s budget public hearing voiced their support for a proposed climate resilience program manager position, and several fire officials spoke in favor of a proposed firefighting training facility.
Town Manager John Burt presented a proposed fiscal year 2022 budget of $138,647,317, which represents an $8,193,333, or 6.3%, increase over the current year’s budget.
He said the increases in the town’s proposed spending plan are primarily due to paying for the bonds for the Groton 2020 school plan, along with capital improvement projects, requests from subdivisions, new staffing positions for the police department and for the climate resilience program manager position, and increases for benefits and contributions to health and service agencies.
According to the budget book, the overall budget includes: $38,522,144 for town operations, a 5.1% increase; $77,438,090 for education, a 0% increase; $13,874,450, for capital/debt service, a 60.6% increase; $1,990,923 for outside agencies, a 7.7% increase; $6,471,710 for subdivisions, a 14.5% increase, and $350,000 for contingency, a 0% increase.
Burt said the budget proposal as it stands would raise the tax rate from 25.11 mills to 26.22 mills next year. He said it is a challenging year, but he anticipates the town will be able to make some cuts during its deliberations.
The budget includes about $275,000 for new staff positions. For the town police department, the budget calls for a social worker position and an additional community police officer, as well as part-time community services officers who can take care of tasks that might not require a police officer to do, but at a lower cost, he said. Burt said the town has a “world-class police department” but is trying to do even better and keep improving. The budget also calls for the climate resilience program manager, who would work in the Planning & Development Services Department.
“We’re on the Sound and we’re already seeing some effects of climate change,” Burt said. “It’s something we have to address earlier rather than later.”
The town typically spends about $2 million each year on capital improvement projects, but Burt said he thinks that has been inadequate to maintain the town’s facilities and plans to add to that base level. He is proposing $1 million in that category for roads, rather than bonding the money for roads as in past years, and an additional $1.351 million for projects that the town has put off.
“I want to have the discussion if we want to pursue these projects or possibly cut them off the list permanently,” he said.
The spending plan uses about $2.8 million in fund balance, still leaving the town with a healthy reserve, he said. He noted that he expects revenue to increase within the next couple of years as proposed development projects start.
Burt also explained that the current year’s budget is "bare bones," as it was formulated at the start of the pandemic, so now the town is bringing back its funding levels.
Superintendent Susan Austin said the schools budget initially was proposed as a 3.1% increase due to contractual increases, but she and her predecessor, Michael Graner, brought the proposal down to a 1.1% increase and then the Board of Education reduced it further to a 0% increase.
She said salaries are the largest portion of any school budget, but school officials were able to offset contractual increases with efficiencies due to the consolidation of the elementary schools next year. Some categories are decreasing, such as property services, as the district does more services in-house with purchased equipment, while other areas are increasing, such as potentially electric costs, as new buildings are added.
A dozen people spoke up in support of the climate resilience program manager position and said the coastal community needs to take steps now to address climate change. According to a draft job description, the staff member would be responsible for developing and implementing a sustainability action plan for the town, helping the Resilience and Sustainability Task Force prepare plans and policies and helping "to integrate preparedness and climate change projections into municipal projects, planning, and permit review and to ensure that the community has the knowledge, support, and resources necessary to reduce their vulnerability to the increasing risks associated with climate change.”
Zell Steever, chairman of the task force, read aloud a statement from the task force that noted that the Town Council passed on March 2 “a groundbreaking resolution addressing climate change, resiliency, and sustainability as a central management principal for all actions by the town government.” The resolution called for the new staffing position.
“We will save taxpayers money, make Groton a better place to live, work and play if we hire a person to reduce our carbon footprint and address our vulnerabilities to the effects of climate change and secure funding to these ends,” he said.
Jennifer O’Donnell, a Groton resident and coastal engineer, said Groton is being impacted by the effects of climate change now.
“With Long Island Sound to the south and bounded by the Mystic River, the Thames River to the east and west, as well Poquonnock River and Jordan Brook, Groton is particularly susceptible to sea level rise,” she said. “Groton has already sustained coastal erosion and sunny day flooding. These effects of climate change will only become more pronounced and problematic in the future.”
Several fire officials expressed support for a $95,000 capital improvement project for a firefighting training facility behind the Town Hall Annex.
Tony Manfredi, deputy chief of the Mystic Fire Department and a training coordinator of the Groton Fire Officers Association, said such a facility is important for training new volunteers and for successful mutual aid. Currently, the closest training facility is in Willimantic.
While the majority of the comments concerned the new staff position and the training facility, residents also raised other concerns. Representative Town Meeting member Kathy Chase said she appreciated the 0% increase in the education budget, but voters were promised savings with the new school buildings and she wanted to know where those were.
RTM member Mike Whitney said that, given the challenges of these times, avoiding any large tax increases would help. He noted that he is saying this at a time when society expects more of government, which naturally drives up costs, so he hopes state and federal funding can help with that. He added that it’s more important than ever to support health and service agencies so they can reach more people.
The council must approve a budget by April 28 and the Representative Town Meeting has to start budget meetings by May 3 and wrap up by May 25, with the council setting the final tax rate by June 9, Burt said.
The full budget proposal is available at bit.ly/groton2022budget.
People can email their comments on the proposed budget to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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