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First selectman grapples with ‘an extremely lean budget’

STONINGTON — Crafting a budget is always a tug-of-war between services and cost. The town needs to provide sufficient services and a quality school district, while keeping in mind that some people struggle to pay their property taxes.

“It’s a difficult balance, always,” said First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr., a day after the Board of Finance cut nearly $700,000 from the proposed municipal budget for 2014-15. “I understand the rationale.”

Last year, the Board of Finance used nearly $1.4 million from the undesignated fund balance, formerly called the rainy day fund, to keep the tax increase small. But after that expenditure and Tuesday’s vote to take another $1.2 million out of the fund to put a new roof on Deans Mill School, the board was hesitant to take any more money out of the fund.

“We’re at a spot now where we have to be careful with our reserves,” said Haberek.

On Thursday, Haberek said he was spending the day re-organizing Town Hall administrative tasks in response to the budget cuts. Although positions were eliminated, no one was laid off. But with a decrease that large, Haberek said, “you have to cut people.”

The community development clerk, who helps with grants and economic development issues, is retiring at the end of the month, Haberek said, and her vacant position will not be filled. He has also had to put the brakes on interviewing for a new director of planning. The director’s position has been vacant since the 2012 death of William R. Haase,

“That kind of ground it to a halt,” Haberek said of the interview process.

Last summer there were three part-time positions filled to help the town maintain its athletic fields. This year, the town’s public works employees will do those tasks.

“Now we’ll have to take care of that responsibility in-house,” Haberek said. “We’re going to be stretched really thin.”

But he believes voters will approve the budget when it goes before them this spring.

“I really hope they will support it,” he said. “It’s an extremely lean budget.”

While he works with this budget proposal, Haberek said he’s also looking at the years ahead. Although the grand list, the total amount of all taxable property in town, didn’t increase much this year, Haberek said it will likely go up in about two or three years. A tax abatement for Zachry Nuclear Engineering will expire in a few years, a planned senior-living development in Mystic may be completed by then, and the redevelopment of a Pawcatuck thread mill may be raising the grand list. But in the interim, the stagnant grand list combined with increasing expenses isn’t helping.

“It’s going to be a very, very difficult budget next year going forward,” he said. “We have to plan to deliver services differently.”

The public will have the opportunity to comment on the proposed $58.2 million budget on Thursday, April 10, at Stonington High School,176 South Broad St., at 7 p.m. Immediately following the hearing, the Board of Finance will meet to decide if any changes are to be made to the budget, and then pass it along to the Board of Selectmen for a town meeting.

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