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East Lyme sends $77.9 million budget to referendum

East Lyme — Taxpayers voted at the end of Monday night's hybrid town meeting — through a chorus of ayes from those in the high school auditorium and a show of hands from those accessing the meeting remotely — to adjourn to a referendum vote on the proposed $77.9 million budget for 2021-22.

The referendum will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 19, at the East Lyme Community Center.

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 total represents an increase of $1.80 million, or 2.37%, compared to the current budget.

Key increases on the town side include a new police officer position, additional hours for part-time building officials, and a contracted assistant in the town's inland wetland agency. On the education side are 15 new positions: four teachers, six paraeducators, a high school social worker, an occupational therapy assistant and three math coaches.

The police commission had recommended hiring two new officers per year as part of a six-year strategic plan. The finance board compromised by including one.

Amid profuse thanks to the Board of Finance for its work on the budget was one official who balanced his praise with some criticism of the board.

Selectman Paul Dagle said he had concerns about the finance board's debate over hiring one or two police officers because he felt like members were encroaching on the policymaking responsibilities of the Board of Selectmen and other entities.

The finance board deliberations on police staffing last month revolved around costs and tax rate implications, delving into such issues as crime statistics, officer training, the benefits of an experienced officer versus a new recruit and whether a school resource officer could be converted to a full-time police officer for the town, among many others.

Finance board Chairwoman Camille Alberti also told her fellow members during the discussion that she had concerns about accepting the recommended six-year plan due to the lack of diversity on the seven-member Police Commission, which she described as being made up of "all white males."

In his criticism of the deliberations, Dagle recognized that deciding to use an unexpected influx of state aid to reduce the proposed budget's drain on the rainy day fund — as opposed to using it for something else, like hiring the second police officer — was within the finance board's purview. But he said specifying or prioritizing how a department's allocation should be spent was not.

"My point is, the Board of Finance's responsibility to the town is to decide if we can afford to do something that the policymakers of the town think we need," he said.

Finance boards in towns that operate according to the town meeting form of government are responsible for making and carrying out the town's fiscal policy, according to the Handbook for Connecticut Boards of Finance published through the University of Connecticut.

Alberti on Tuesday said she disagreed with Dagle's characterization of the finance board's role. "Every single policy in the town has a dollar sign attached to it. Our role is to ensure the best use of revenues and tax dollars," she said. "And, finally, the Board of Finance really works for the people that elected them into office."

The proposed budget uses $307,919 from the undesignated fund balance, or rainy day fund, to alleviate the burden on taxpayers. The finance board had planned to take $900,000 out of the fund but was able to reduce the amount based on anticipated funding from the state. The aid was promised when lawmakers in early March passed a bill to shift the way municipalities are reimbursed for tax-exempt properties.

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

The tax rate will be set by the finance board after the budget is passed at referendum. If approved as proposed, the tax rate is projected to increase by 0.15 mill to 28.51 mills.

A taxpayer with a home assessed at $250,000 would pay $7,128 in the coming fiscal year based on the projected tax rate, an increase of $38 over their current tax payment. Someone with a home assessed at $350,000 would owe $9,979, or $53 more. Voters at the town meeting also approved a 10-year capital plan outlining priorities over the next decade to better anticipate large expenses such as revaluations, infrastructure projects and replacement of equipment.

Another item on the agenda was the approval of $44,475 to be covered through the Nuclear Safety Emergency Preparedness grant. East Lyme police Chief Mike Finkelstein said Tuesday the grant will pay for replacement of the computer in the Emergency Operations Center's Communications Room, as well as seven portable radios to communicate with the state radio system.


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