STONINGTON — An effort by members of the Stonington Board of Finance to use fewer undesignated funds to offset taxes and restore funding for five projects fell short Tuesday, leading the board to pass an $80.2 million spending proposal for the 2023-24 budget year.
Finance board members Robert Statchen, Chris Johnson and Mike Fauerbach all opposed moving forward unless either the board reduced the amount coming from the town’s undesignated fund, restored $647,000 to the capital improvement project line, or both. Johnson had also pushed for a restoration of funds for the YMCA, one of the only requests made during a public hearing preceding the board’s vote.
Despite the heavy opposition, which was led by Statchen, members Bryan Bentz, Deborah Norman, Lynn Young and Chairman Timothy O’Brien voted in favor, passing the budget to the Board of Selectmen to schedule for referendum.
“My feelings are that the town should not be used or operated as a savings bank,” O’Brien said. “We shouldn’t be holding onto (undesignated funds) longer than we need to. It belongs to the taxpayer and should be returned.”
The proposed spending plan passed Tuesday night represents a 4.5% increase, with many of the new expenditures coming in the town’s education budget. The proposal, when factored alongside revaluation totals, would result in a total 5.2 mill decrease and require the mill rate be set at 17.45 mills.
As presented, the board noted that many taxpayers would likely see a small reduction in taxes for the second consecutive year. Those who had more significant increases in property values during revaluation may still see a small increase, officials warn.
The town has implemented a free tax calculator on the Stonington-ct.gov to help residents determine what their tax rate will be.
While Bentz, Norman and Young each said they did not hear anything from the public to justify further changes — aside from many tightly-focused line-item questions coming from Pawcatuck resident David Brown, the only other requests made were to reinstate a request from the Ocean Community YMCA — Statchen remained adamant that the town should consider withholding far more than the $2.6 million in the undesignated fund, especially as the nation faces the possibility of a recession on the heels of drastic inflation.
“I cannot support a budget that lacks sustainability like this,” Statchen said. “Since 2021, the budget has increased by 8.76%, while during that time revenues only increased by 3.2%.”
“Last year we were able to offer a reduction in the mill rate, and while offering a small break again sounds great, we cannot do that at the risk of pushing off things to the future that will end with a much larger increase in taxes,” Statchen said. “I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
Bentz and Young reiterated that the town was already withholding a considerable amount of funding even in using $3.8 million from the undesignated fund to offset taxes, as it leaves $2.6 million more than required by board policy in the undesignated fund. The money should be spent now or given back, and should not be held, they argued.
Fauerbach attempted to reach a compromise by seeking to restore a total of $647,000 to the capital improvement plan line item, which would then have been used to support funding for five separate projects.
When the board first began debating this year’s budget, Fauerbach noted that all members of the board were acting conservatively due to expectations that inflation would cancel much of the grand list increase. With more favorable numbers now available, he said the town needs to do more to tackle immediate needs around the community.
Among project funding he sought to restore was $257,000 for design and upgrades to the White Rock Bridge, $235,000 for the purchase of a truck for the Department of Public Works, and monies for both the town’s bridge replacement fund and for the purchase of a second light for the portable lighting system.
“These are not ‘want to do’ projects that we are talking about here; these are needs,” Fauerbach said. “Whether we push these off or do it now, these are projects that we cannot avoid for much longer.”
If the town restored all five projects, it would still only push the mill rate to 17.61, he noted, and would “still reflect a year-over-year decrease for most residents.”
Young suggested that she would consider funding the projects, but only if additional money from the $2.6 million in remaining usable undesignated funds would be used to pay for them. Statchen, Fauerbach and Johnson said Young’s proposal did not provide the compromise they were seeking.
“This budget represents a 23% decline in the capital improvement budget, and I feel like we are pulling out too much of these expenditures to take down the mill rate,” Fauerbach said.
The proposed budget will now be sent to town meeting in early May and scheduled for referendum, which is currently slated to be held on May 16.
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