standing Stonington Town Hall

STONINGTON — With a $71.5 million budget in place for the coming fiscal year, members of the Board of Selectmen are turning their focus to the future.

The town's Board of Selectmen will move forward in establishing the Infrastructure Task Force in the coming weeks, an effort that will bring together a team of volunteers and town staff to develop a long-range plan that will allow the town to address capital needs. The purpose of the task force, all three members said, is to help the town prepare for the future in a manner that will not lead to any surprise costs for the town.

"We needed to do something this year to make sure we were not putting any additional burden on the taxpayers, and to build a budget that was realistic to the fact that the (COVID-19) crisis could lead to a reduction in income for the town," First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said. "The next step is to look at the big picture, one that will help guide the town for the next 5 to 10 years."

Members of the Board of Selectmen authorized the budget last week, which was adopted unanimously by the Board of Finance and keeps the town's tax rate unchanged at 23.36 mills for the 2020-21 fiscal year. It was passed following a virtual public hearing, but the town did not hold the usual referendum due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The budget includes a total of $31.71 million for general government, $37.4 million for education and $2.44 million for capital improvements. The overall budget represents a decrease of $2.1 million, or 2.85%, when compare to current spending but officials said it will not result in a decrease in mills because the town had used less of its undesignated surplus, or rainy day fund, in the current fiscal year to offset the tax rate.

Selectwoman June Strunk said this week that while the budget will address two important capital improvement needs such as funding for sewer-related work and necessary roof repairs at the West Broad Street School, it also scales back on other efforts as well. She said the task force will help identify and prioritize all remaining needs that could potentially help to both limit spending while reducing the potential impact of an emergency repairs.

"Several years ago now, the town had taken action to look at its buildings and facilities as part of an effort to become more proactive in addressing needs and problems," she said. "This would expand on those efforts, and rather than be reactionary, it will allow the town to create a more scheduled plan for those expenditures."

Chesebrough, Strunk and Selectwoman Deborah Downie said it won't simply be town and school buildings on the list of infrastructure needs that the task force will put together. Other costs and needs, including road maintenance, sidewalk repairs and enhancements, and other major Department of Public Works projects, would be included in the long-term plan as well.

Downie said this week that there is "without a doubt" a need to look closely at the town's wants and needs, and to identify problems before they become an emergency cost. She noted that delaying on work such as repairing leaking roofs can lead to greater problems, such as was seen last year when a powerful storm led to the collapse of the privately-owned Stillmanville Mill property located along the river at the end of Stillman Avenue in Pawcatuck.

Chesebrough, Strunk and Downie each said that the sewer system repairs are necessary for multiple reasons, including efforts to prevent overburdening the town's system and to lift a moratorium on new sewer hookups in Mystic. The moratorium, which does not restrict development but does prevent attaching new lines to the system, is expected to remain in place until sewage is diverted from the Mystic treatment plant, which is near capacity, to an underused plant in Stonington Borough.

"Having a task force like this would potentially help us to identify such needs earlier, and to avoid things such as the need future moratoriums," Downie said.

The Board of Selectmen has not yet determined whether the task force would be considered a formal body or working group, but Chesebrough said the board  planned to discuss the matter formally during their meetings over the next month.

Once details are finalized, Chesebrough said the Board of Selectmen would appoint the volunteer committee and task them with beginning the work.

"This is still in the very early stages and there are a lot of details to still figure out," Chesebrough said. "We have not yet coordinated with the schools, (Water Pollution Control Authority) or other groups, but we do want to move forward in creating a community plan and this is the start of that process."

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