Year-end commentary: Riding the state’s budget roller coaster in Stonington

Year-end commentary: Riding the state’s budget roller coaster in Stonington

The Westerly Sun

Editor’s note: At the end of each year, The Sun provides an opportunity for area school superintendents and town leaders to reflect on the year and, if they wish, to discuss plans for the new year. 

One month ago at a festive event in the Pawcatuck Fire House, a dozen Stonington town officials were sworn in for their respective offices. First Selectman Rob Simmons and Selectwoman Kate Rotella were re-elected to their second two-year terms. Selectman John Prue from Pawcatuck Village began his first term on the board, replacing former Selectman Mike Spellman.

All three pledged to work together for the benefit of the town in the coming two years’ which is good news. The bad news is that serving in municipal government in Connecticut these days is like riding a roller coaster.

The biggest challenge we faced in the past year was dealing with a state that is virtually broke and unable to meet its obligations to the state’s 169 towns and cities — Stonington included. This situation is certain to continue.

Early in 2017, Gov. Dannel Malloy eliminated all of Stonington’s state aid. The legislature’s bipartisan budget restored all but 4 percent of the cuts. But using executive powers, the governor is covering budget shortfalls by withholding millions of dollars from the towns and cities.

For example, a year ago the Connecticut Department of Housing awarded a grant of $500,000 for the Pawcatuck Village’s Streetscape Route 1 corridor — a state road. Key to the project was sidewalks providing safe pedestrian passage for high school students, the elderly and disabled, and residents who walk along the busy highway.

Without warning, the state withheld the money at a Bond Commission meeting in late November. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Welcome to the Connecticut “roller coaster.”

The 2018-19 budget cycle is fast approaching, when the town must, once again, ride the roller coaster of uncertain state aid.  

On a positive note, Stonington is back in the Federal Emergency Management Agency Community Rating System with a 10 percent discount on flood insurance.  

As well, the town sold $20 million in general obligation bonds for the two elementary school projects currently underway at a very favorable 2.6 percent interest rate. This is because, thanks to the Board of Finance, our long-term bond rating of AA+/Stable is one of the best in the state.  

In Pawcatuck Village, the good news is that the Walton Block has been sold for renovation after years of neglect. And the recent passage of Pawcatuck Village 5 Zoning will provide incentives to property owners to invest in the downtown area.

Looking ahead to 2018, the town will promote grand list growth with the Perkins Farm and Mystic Color Lab developments. We also look forward to cleaning up and establishing the Mystic River Boathouse Park. And we will focus on helping our farmers and fishermen.

Consideration will also be given to charter reform. For more than 350 years Stonington has used a three-person Board of Selectmen to run the town. Now with a population of 18,000, a $2.6 billion grand list, $60 million annual budget, three sewer plants, five schools, two major tourist attractions and 2.5 million visitors yearly, it is reasonable to ask if we need a five-person board, appointed professionals for town clerk and tax collector, and possibly a town manager.

In the months ahead, the Board of Education will also consider whether or not we need two middle schools. While the outcome is uncertain, this issue could become a contest between Mystic and Pawcatuck villages. That would be unfortunate.

When times are tough we need to pull together as a town — the whole town — to make decisions that are in the best interest of all the children and families of Stonington.

We live in a great town. Let us put Stonington First. And have a Happy New Year!

Rob Simmons is Stonington first selectman.


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