NORTH STONINGTON — Less than 400 voters took to the polls on Monday to vote in the town’s annual budget referendum, but officials are hopeful that the low turnout was indicative of satisfied residents as separate questions on the budget, pandemic spending and a policy change all passed by a 2 to 1 margin.
Voters approved the 2022-23 fiscal budget, a $21.64 million combined general government, education and capital improvement spending plan, by approving both general government spending, 260-133, and education spending, 260-132 with one opposed. The budget will take effect on July 1 and includes $14.53 million for education, $5.32 million for general government, $408,655 for capital improvements and $1.38 million for debt liabilities.
First Selectman Bob Carlson said Tuesday that while officials would certainly have preferred to see a higher turnout and more community participation, he is hopeful the budget passing as it did shows that residents are pleased with the spending plan and direction town government is taking.
“There will always be some people who disagree or vote no, but I am hopeful that this level of approval is a sign that people in the community have a certain level of confidence in how we are running things,” Carlson said. “It sends a message that they believe the current leadership is working well, and we need to continue to work to be transparent so that the people are able to know what is happening.”
The budget that was approved Monday carries a modest increase in spending, 2.64%, when compared to the current budget. The spending plan includes an additional 1.74% for education and 2.72% for general government.
Capital improvements would represent a 68.34% increase over the current fiscal year, but that total still remains $96,000 lower than what was funded in the 2020-21 fiscal year before cuts were made to aid impact to voters a year ago.
Carlson and Board of Education Chairwoman Christine Wagner each said that many of the spending increases in the coming year aren’t driven by new programs or initiatives, but rather are designed to absorb increases in expenses as a result of inflation. Contractual obligations including salaries also account for a large portion of the increases, especially for the Board of Education.
The budget that passed came despite some concerns during the process that perhaps spending would be too high.
Members of the Board of Finance sent the budget that passed to hearing on March 30 by a 4-2 vote with Sarah Nelson and Mike Anderson opposed. Both had expressed a desire at the time to try and delve deeper, as well as find the best solution for a surplus resulting from growth in the grand list, before sending the budget along to the public, but were outnumbered by those who wanted feedback before making any further adjustments.
For a community hit hard by revaluation a year ago, however, the current year’s grand list brought about a positive change that heavily increased the taxable assets considerably. The result, alongside the budget, is a reduction in the mill rate from the current rate 28.6 to 28.45 in the coming year.
Members of the Board of Finance will set the mill rate at an upcoming meeting, in accordance with town procedures.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to maintain all services and lower the mill rate, it’s a good position to be in,” Carlson said. “We believed this was a good, sound budget and I think the voters showed that they agree.”
Demolition, policy change
North Stonington voters also approved a measure Monday to spend American Rescue Plan Act funding on the demolition of the one-story wing at the North Stonington Education Center. Voters passed the measure, which sought $1 million for demolition of the former middle school wing, 266-125. Two people did not vote on this question.
The measure will allow the town to move forward in seeking a request for proposals on the demolition — officials issued the RFP on Friday — and Carlson said once the total cost is determined, the issue would go back to the townspeople for a vote at town meeting.
Voters also approved a change, 279-109, to improve efficiencies for the town's recreation department. The measure was considered an administrative adjustment to improve financial processes and transparency.