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East Lyme finance board sends budget to the people

East Lyme — The Board of Finance 2021-22 budget is on its way to a town meeting after the Board of Finance left the $77.99 million spending plan largely unchanged following a public hearing.

A motion by Republican finance board member Anne Santoro at a special meeting Monday failed to secure enough votes to add a second, new police officer halfway through the year, with nay votes coming from Democrats Camille Alberti, Ann Cicchiello and Richard Steel.

The police commission had recommended hiring two new officers per year as part of a six-year strategic plan. The finance board last week — with some members supporting no new officers and others supporting two — compromised by including one officer in the proposed budget.

The finance board's proposed budget comes in at $52.21 million for education, $19.38 million for general government, $5.72 million for debt service and $683,113 for capital.

The finance board also voted Monday to take $307,919 from the undesignated fund balance, or rainy day fund, to alleviate the burden on taxpayers. Members previously had planned to take $900,000 out of the fund but were able to reduce the amount based on anticipated funding from the state. The anticipated aid comes after lawmakers in early March passed a bill to shift the way municipalities are reimbursed for tax-exempt properties.

The bill passed the Senate and House with bipartisan support and creates a tiered payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program that would boost aid to better offset tax losses in distressed municipalities and those cities and towns with large amounts of nontaxable properties, including state-owned land, colleges and hospitals.

The town is expecting $592,081 from the PILOT program, according to the finance board. The numbers won't be final until the legislature passes a budget prior to adjourning on June 9.

The spending plan for the schools represents an increase of $1.34 million, or 2.6%, over the current year. The general government budget proposal comes in at an increase of $529,492 million, or 2.81%, over the current year.

Finance board members projected the mill rate, which will be set by the finance board after the budget is approved at referendum, will increase by 0.15 mill — or 0.53% — based on the proposed budget. That would bring the mill rate to 28.51 mills.

A taxpayer with a home assessed at $350,000 would pay $9,979 in the coming fiscal year based on the projected mill rate. That's $38 over the current tax payment.

The proposed education budget includes 15 new positions to help close the achievement gap that resulted when schools went to remote learning last spring, and then to a hybrid model of classroom and virtual instruction for most of the current school year.

A portion of the district's roughly $1.8 million allocation through the federal American Relief Plan is expected to cover four teachers and six paraeducators, at a cost of $431,916.

On the town side, the proposed budget includes the new police officer position, additional hours for part-time building officials, and a contracted assistant in the town's inland wetland agency. The finance board sought savings in the building and wetlands departments by reducing the initial budget requests for staffing assistance by $10,000 each.

Several people spoke in favor of reinstating a second police officer position during the public hearing prior to the finance board's special meeting Monday night.

Mark Powers, a member of the police commission who said he was speaking as an individual, asked the finance board to support the commission's six-year plan as a way to help bring staffing levels in the East Lyme Police Department closer to other municipalities in the state.

"While crime is certainly not rampant here by any means, which is terrific, I believe we need to support our outstanding, hardworking police officers and keep them safe," Powers said.

Police Commission Chairman Daniel Price during the public hearing suggested using some of the money promised to the town through the PILOT program to enhance police staffing — "even if we just added the officer halfway through the year in January, that would be great."

He also broached the idea, reiterated during deliberations by multiple finance board members, that failing to adequately fund the police department could expose the town to "liability."

But Alberti and Cicchiello noted most of the comments during the public hearing came from members of the police commission and Board of Selectmen.

"I didn't hear anyone from the general public saying, 'I feel unsafe, I need more police,'" Cicchiello told finance board members. "I think if I had heard that, I might change my tune. But I'm not hearing that."

Steel, in rejecting the motion to add a half-year police position, said the budget still can be changed going forward. "If the town doesn't like it, they can always vote down the budget," he said.

A town budget meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 3, in the East Lyme High School auditorium, according to First Selectman Mark Nickerson. There will be a remote access option for those who do not feel comfortable attending the public meeting in person.

The budget will automatically adjourn to a referendum scheduled for May 19 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the East Lyme Community Center. Nickerson said absentee ballots are available at the town clerk's office.

An executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont in place until May 20 allows the pandemic as a reason for voting by absentee ballot. The state's rigorous absentee voting restrictions will tighten up again when the executive order expires.

e.regan@theday.com

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