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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 16, 2014
Stonington Selectmen Board OKs $1.5 million municipal budget, up 7.5 percent

by Rich Hewitt

The selectmen on Monday, January 13, approved a $1.5 million municipal budget to run the town for this year.

The total budget of $1,504,625 represents an increase of $105,666 from the 2013 town budget or about a 7.5 percent increase from last year.

Based on early estimates for the school budget, valuation, surplus and revenues, the proposed budget, if approved as presented, would boost the tax rate to 14.65, an increase of 47 cents per $1,000 of value. That would result in an increase of $47 on a property valued at $100,000, said Selectman Evelyn Duncan. Duncan stressed that the tax rate was based on those early estimates and could change as those values are firmed up.

“This is all guess work at this point,” she said.

Those estimates include drawing $25,000 from surplus to help reduce taxes as well as another $75,000 to go toward a planned repair project at the Hagen Dock. The allocation of the Hagen Dock funds will appear as a separate article on the warrant for the annual town meeting.

Selectman Chris Betts noted that the town planned to sell some tax-acquired property, which would increase the funds available to the town toward the budget.

“If we do sell a couple of properties, we may be able to take more from surplus,” he said.

Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said that once all of those variable figures—particularly the education budget—were finalized after the CSD annual meeting, they would rework those estimates to come up with a final tax rate for the year.

The selectmen made only one change in the budget lines which they had developed during the past month. That was to add $3,000 to the Colwell Ramp account, which brought it up to the $5,000 figure the town had budgeted last year. The board initially had budgeted just $2,000, a figure that matched what, until recently, the town of Isle au Haut had contributed under the inter-local agreement for the ramp. Duncan reported to the board that recently, Isle au Haut had, upon the advice of their attorneys, sent a check for $3,000 to bring their total contribution for 2013 to $5,000, which is what Stonington had put into the account.

The selectmen noted that the ramp and dock need considerable work. Billings-Pezaris said the dock has gotten a lot of wear and tear, especially with the large barge that has been coming in there.

“It’s tearing to pieces from so much use,” she said.

With the 2013 payments from the two towns, the ramp account has about $11,000 in it, according to Duncan, which selectmen agreed was not enough to do much work on the ramp. They suggested that if both towns matched the 2013 contribution of $5,000 each, the total of $21,000 in the account would be enough to make a start on repairing the ramp and dock.

“We can do a lot with $21,000,” said Selectman Richard Larrabee.

So they boosted the amount in that account from $2,000 to $5,000 with the expectation that Isle au Haut, whose town meeting comes later in the spring, would do the same.

Although the selectmen had worked on the individual accounts over the last month or so, this was the first time they had seen all of the figures put together in a draft budget, and so, they examined each account carefully.

Some of the larger budget increases came in the administration accounts. New computers and software along with increases in assessing as the town begins to digitize its tax cards boosted the administration account by a little more than $5,000. Health insurance costs for the office staff increased by $9,000 and the selectmen included salary increases for the board, the town clerks and town manager, adding almost $15,000 to the salary account. That increase also includes a full-year salary for one member of the office staff.

The transfer station account is up more than $11,000. Most of that comes from an anticipated increase in tipping fees at the PERC plant, about $5,000, and increased wages, which went up about $1,600. The wage increase represents increased hours to help with recycling and also includes payments to the public works crew which had been coming from the public works account, Duncan said.

The town’s roads also account for a fair amount of the budget increase. The winter roads account is up almost $11,000, most of that coming in increases in wages and worker compensation. The road maintenance account is up about $21,000, driven mainly by a $14,000 increase in wages. The selectmen questioned that jump, noting that although the town had budgeted $51,000 last year, it has spent just over $41,000. Duncan said the road department had worked for part of the year without a full crew and the proposed increase reflected having a full complement of workers for the whole year.

Billings-Pezaris added that the higher figure indicated that the town planned to continue to increase efforts to improve the roads.

“We’re doing way more work on the roads and catching up on things, and they need it,” she said.

Board Chairman George Stevens questioned whether the $150,000 earmarked for tarring this year was enough. He said that amount would likely cover just one major road improvement project, adding that there were a number of roads in town that needed to be paved. After a brief discussion, the board let that figure stand.

The budget also anticipates the purchase of a new truck that will be funded partially from an equipment reserve account.

The budget also includes an increase of $10,000 in the economic development account that would provide funds to hire someone part-time to work on economic development issues for the town. Betts questioned what types of projects the person would be working on.

Billings-Pezaris said there were a number of things that needed to be done, foremost, completing a survey of low-to-moderate income families in town, and updating the town strategic economic development plan and the downtown revitalization plan. Those need to be in hand before the town can apply for state Community Development Block Grant funds, she said.

“The grant process is very competitive and there’s no guarantee we’d get one,” Billings-Pezaris said. “But we need to do those documents to be eligible for it.”

Barring any unforeseen changes, the budget as approved will be presented to voters at the annual town meeting in March.