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Education spending proposal is slashed

STONINGTON — The Board of Finance cut a final $2.2 million from the proposed 2014-15 budget Wednesday night, bringing the total down to $58.2 million. If approved by voters, the budget would carry a tax rate of $20.37 per $1,000 of property value. That’s an increase of 49 cents per $1,000, or 2.46 percent, over this year’s budget.

The bulk of the cuts came from school spending, including $663,213 from the Board of Education’s proposed $33.7 million operating budget. According to John O’Brien, chairman of the the finance board, 76 percent of the town’s overall proposed increase came from the school budget, and it would therefore have to sustain a substantial reduction. The finance board also eliminated about $1 million from the school district’s capital budget. O’Brien suggested that school safety items in the budget be pulled out and put into a bonding package that voters could consider separately.

A public hearing on the budget will be held on April 10 at Stonington High School at 7 p.m.

O’Brien said he believes the budget will be supported by the voters. “I would rate it as a very good chance of passing,” he said after the meeting.

Last year, money from the fund balance, also known as the rainy-day fund, was used to keep taxes down. However, because voters at a town meeting on Tuesday had just approved spending $1.2 million from the fund to replace the roof at Deans Mill Elementary School, O’Brien said the board really couldn’t draw from the balance this year.

At the beginning of the meeting, O’Brien told the standing-room-only crowd that he had polled the other members of the Board of Finance earlier and decided that the 0.49-mill increase would be the goal of budget cuts. To achieve that, the board needed to cut a total of $2.5 million; earlier reductions had amounted to about $300,000.

The board decided to save on town salaries and benefits by delaying the hiring of one police officer and the director of planning. The director of planning position has been vacant since the death of former planning director William R. Haase in 2012, and town officials had just begun conducting interviews to fill that position.

Seasonal field help will be eliminated, and the work will be performed by the town’s public works employees instead. “We’ll have our own guys do the fields,” said First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr., who prepared those suggested cuts in advance of Wednesday’s meeting.

Haberek, along with Selectmen George Crouse and Glee McAnanly, forfeited their raises for this year. In his proposed budget, Haberek had requested a $2,277 increase for himself and a $148 raise each for Crouse and McAnanly. Each raise equaled a 2.4 percent salary increase.

“I thought to lead by example,” Haberek said.

Grants to outside agencies, such as libraries and ambulance companies, were funded at the same level as last year, and will not receive the 12 percent mean increase that Haberek had recommended.

Total cuts to the general operating budget, from deliberations on Wednesday as well as the previous week, equaled $697,034. Of the $663,213 that was cut from the school operating budget, $138,234 was a reduction in the cost of health insurance premiums.

By law, the Board of Finance can only provide a bottom line for the Board of Education, and cannot decide how the school board allocates the fund. The Board of Education is scheduled to meet on March 27 and will likely consider what to cut then.

Although voters can advocate for the education budget at the April 10 hearing, O’Brien said he doubted that the finance board would reinstate the cuts. “I think the odds of putting half a million back in is pretty low,” he said. “Frankly, it went up too much.”

He added: “You’ve just got to face reality.”

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