standing Stonington Town Hall

Editor's note: The budget process will continue in the coming weeks, with the annual town meeting scheduled to take place on April 19 at 5:30 p.m. Voters will then be asked to approve the budget during a referendum scheduled for April 27.

STONINGTON — Members of the Board of Finance have moved forward a $73.14 million budget recommendation for the 2021-22 fiscal year that would increase the tax rate by 0.49 mills.

Board members passed the recommendation unanimously Thursday evening following a relatively quiet public hearing that saw 27 total letters submitted on just three line items. The letters included 25 opinions supporting the proposed budget for Mystic & Noank Library — the request was passed as presented — as well as a letter of support for hiring a community outreach specialist to join the Stonington Human Services staff, and another which criticized the town for not placing enough resources in preserving open space.

The budget recommendation now heads back to the Board of Selectmen and will be presented to the public for consideration during the annual town meeting.

"Creating a balanced budget is something that requires a great deal of community effort and direct input," First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said. "This budget addresses both current and future town needs across a huge range of areas. It includes important investments for the community and our schools."

The budget recommendation passed by finance members includes $23.89 million million for general government operations, $38.34 million for Stonington Public Schools, $8.13 million and $2.77 million in capital improvement project funding.

The finance board's proposal, crafted following several weeks of workshops, includes a 2.5% increase in education spending, while general government and debt spending would increase by $319,000, or 1%. The capital improvement budget represents a 13.7% increase in spending, or $335,000.

The proposal represents a $1.58 million increase in spending over the current fiscal year and Board of Finance Chairman Tim O'Brien said during Thursday's public hearing that as presented, the budget would represent a 0.49 mill increase and would require officials raise the tax rate to 23.85 mills.

O'Brien said that it was a difficult budget to consider, with finance members working to identify and separate the needs from the wants as taxpayers continue to face challenging economic conditions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said strong communication and efforts by department leaders to explain each dollar helped in the process and aided in allowing the board to balance town needs against the taxpayers' ability to pay.

"We really did listen to what the needs of town are, not just what the wants of the town are. Sometimes that can be a hard thing to differentiate between," O'Brien said. "The collaborative process helped to make it easier to understand what was needed versus what was wanted."

While the budget seeks to bring a complete spending and revenue plan forward for the coming fiscal year, O'Brien said it does not include any proposed spending or allocation of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act stimulus.

Town officials said the guidelines for how money could be spent continues to remain unclear, which makes allocating the funding before it is received nearly impossible. Funding will be dispersed over a three-year period as well, which officials said could impact how it is used in the community.

O'Brien said by excluding these funds from the coming budget plan, the town will not be left in a position where it is having to use special allocations or left with unanticipated costs.

"We are still looking for clarity on how the American Rescue Plan funds may be used of what will be available," he said. This budget as crafted will not be impacted by that whatsoever."

For more on the budget process, including copies of the proposed 2021-22 fiscal budget, visit the town's website at stonington-ct.gov.

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