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Preston residents send town, school budgets to referendum without changes

Preston — The annual budget town meeting Thursday started with a round of applause for the town officials who continued to work after making a sudden shift 14 months ago to remote meetings and alternative ways of doing business due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The town suspended its normal budget process a year ago, leaving it up to the Board of Finance to set the final town and school budget totals. The town reopened to in-person meetings two weeks ago with the budget public hearing.

Residents made no comments Thursday on the proposed $12.4 million 2021-22 school budget, voting to send the question to referendum, with voting from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 16 at Preston Plains Middle School. The referendum usually is held on a Tuesday, but town officials decided to schedule the referendum for June 16, a Wednesday, one day after school ends.

The proposed $4 million general government budget drew brief attention, with Fire Chief Tom Casey passing along questions he received asking why his request to hire additional firefighters was not in the budget.

In March, Casey requested either a full-time firefighter, costing $72,250, or adding $50,000 to the budget to hire more per diem firefighters to cover 330 shifts per year. The town now has the full-time chief, a full-time fire captain and hires per diem firefighters to cover three shifts per day, seven days a week.

First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier said she supports the added fire service personnel, but rather than fund the position in the budget, town officials are exploring whether they can use part of the town's anticipated $456,640 in American Rescue Act funding to cover the cost. She said public safety is an allowed use for the grant.

Former First Selectman Robert Congdon, now vice chairman of the Board of Finance, said town government staffing should be included in the annual operating budget rather than funded through grants, as they are permanent positions.

Casey said he opposed the town government budget as proposed if the fire staffing was not included.

The more than two dozen residents at the meeting voted overwhelmingly to send the two budgets as presented to referendum.

The proposed budgets would result in a tax decrease next fiscal year. The Board of Finance voted in May to use $450,000 from the town’s healthy undesignated fund balance to bring the proposed tax rate to 26.67 mills, down by 0.27 mill, or 1%, from this year’s tax rate of 26.94 mills.

Resident Mike Clancy attempted to raise the tax rate to last year’s total Thursday, but his proposal was halted by rules that residents cannot raise the budget at the town meeting. Clancy argued that the money could be restored to the town surplus in anticipation of a difficult budget year next year.

c.bessette@theday.com

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