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Amid low turnout, East Lyme voters approve $77.9 million budget

East Lyme — A small number of voters passed the $77.9 million 2021-22 budget by a large margin this week.

There were 422 votes in favor and 176 opposed at the May 19 referendum.

The newly approved 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.

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%.

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.

The proposed budget uses $307,919 from the undesignated fund balance, or rainy day fund, to alleviate the burden on taxpayers.

The tax rate will be set by the finance board on May 26. It is projected to increase by 0.15 mill to 28.51 mills.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson noted it's been at least 14 years since a budget in East Lyme was voted down at referendum.

"The town is run very efficiently, we've had lean budgets for over a decade, and we've provided great value to the taxpayers," he said.

But he said the low turnout raises questions about the need to hold a machine vote every year — even when there's a "a very small, minimal increase" or a decrease.

"This might be something the town has a dialogue about," he said.

A total of 598 voters came out on Wednesday. According to statistics from the Secretary of the State, there were 13,672 registered voters in town as of last November's election.

A 2009 charter revision established an automatic referendum on the budget instead of voting on the spending plan at the annual town meeting.

Proponents at the time said sending the budget to an automatic referendum allows for more people to vote. Opponents argued the change would take away the right of residents to amend the proposed budget at the town meeting. They cited a case, 18 years prior, when one resident was able to successfully reduce the budget during a town meeting.

Nickerson said it costs the town about $5,000 to hold a referendum.

e.regan@theday.com

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