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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 9, 2014
Stonington selectmen tackle budget, identify needs for 2014

by Rich Hewitt

Selectmen have begun working on the 2014 municipal budget and have identified some of the areas that will have an impact on the final budget figure.

“It’s a challenge,” Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said Tuesday, January 7. “We always try to be mindful of not increasing taxes too much, but at the same time we have to keep things going and the cost of everything keeps going up. It gets to be a difficult juggling act.”

Billings-Pezaris said she anticipates an increase in the operations and maintenance account just from increased costs in materials and supplies: everything from heating oil and insurances to the cost of the steel tips for the town’s plows.

The town office needs a new computer system to replace the 2007 system currently in use. While that could be an expensive item, Billings-Pezaris said the selectmen have discussed working through a local company to provide a server rather than purchasing its own server.

“We thought we could do it for a little less than having our own,” she said.

The board also is considering digitizing the town’s tax cards in the existing TRIO system. TRIO is a municipal software program that handles a number of town functions. Digitizing the tax cards would allow the town to use TRIO in the tax assessing process.

Billings-Pezaris said the process can be expensive if done all at once, but said the board is looking at phasing it in over a four-year period at a cost of about $10,000 the first year. Over the long run, she said, it should save the town money, particularly when it comes time to do a revaluation.

Like other water company customers, the town will see an increase in its water bills next year once the PUC approves the company’s request for a rate increase. The town pays for hydrants as well as for water at town buildings and public restrooms.

Increases in insurance premiums also will affect the town office budget, she said.

One big ticket item this year will be the purchase of a new truck to replace a 1999 model that is “pretty much gone.” The town is collecting estimates now on the cost, but Billings-Pezaris estimated that the truck plus equipment could cost between $140,000 and $150,000. The town likely will draw some of that cost from an equipment reserve account, but will have to finance the rest of the bill.

Another large project probably won’t be included in the overall budget, but will appear as a warrant article for town meeting. That’s the Hagen Dock. The dock is in need of repairs and Billings-Pezaris said the selectmen will probably seek to draw funds from the undesignated fund balance account rather than include it as a regular budget item. The town will also need to look at additional funding options for whatever project is developed.

Engineers already are working on an assessment of the work that will need to be done, but Billings-Pezaris said it likely will take several years to put the project together. She noted that the Moose Island project took several years of planning and the Hagen Dock will be just as detailed.

“We need to do our due diligence and have as much information on what can happen that we can plan for,” she said. “It’s not easy working with the ocean right next to you. It’s a fairly complicated project.”

Continued road paving, completion of the sidewalk project up to the Opera House and repairs to the building at the transfer station also will have an impact on the budget.

One area where the selectmen hope to channel some funding is in economic development. Billings-Pezaris said the board is looking at including funding that would allow the town to hire someone for a small amount of time to focus on economic development projects.

The town’s economic development committee has come up with several projects that could boost economic activity in the town, and the town needs someone who can provide a dedicated focus on those and other projects. Funds would also be included to work at improving cell phone coverage in the town.

“Lobstering and tourists are the two big drivers of our local economy,” she said. “We want to work at having a diversified and viable economy down here.”

The two wild cards on the budget, over which the board has little control, are always the county tax and the school budget. Because the CSD and the town are on different fiscal years, the town budget is always completed for town meeting in March while the school budget isn’t approved until June.

“The school budget has the biggest impact for us,” Billings-Pezaris said. “We just have to come up with what we absolutely need to do. We usually estimate what the county [in the form of a county tax assessment] is going to do and we always have to wing the school thing.”

The selectmen usually work through three or four draft budgets before they finalize a budget for town meeting. Depending on how soon price estimates and other information is available, they could have their first draft ready as early as next week.

Next meeting:

Monday, January 13, 7 p.m., town hall