One year ago, The Westerly Sun published an editorial entitled “Budgets Aren’t Meant to Harm.” We agree. But the newspapers these days make it clear that a lot of Connecticut towns and cities are feeling the budget “pinch.” So are we.
For Stonington, part of this goes to the wise decision we made three years ago to renovate our elementary schools. The referendum vote was 3 to 1 in favor. We knew it had to be done. Thanks go to the Board of Education. We prepared for this expense ahead of time by growing our unreserved surplus and improving our bond rating. Thank you Board of Finance.
But the problem is the State of Connecticut. Three years ago, our revenue from federal and state aid was almost 4 percent of the total. Now it is half that. And in February, Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed reducing Stonington’s state aid by 73 percent, giving us nothing in Education Cost Sharing.
Add to this the increase in debt service from 8 to 12 percent to pay for the schools, and the situation becomes apparent. The good news is that the boards of Finance and Education, the police commissioners and selectmen have been working together cooperatively for the past three months to address our budget problems.
We have gone through five versions of the budget, making painful cuts at each stage. General government and education have modest increases of 1.98 percent and 2.64 percent, respectively. Capital improvements suffered a 25 percent cut while debt service grew by 28 percent to cover the cost of our school bonds.
The good news is that the Stonington Grand List, on which our taxes are based, grew by 4.64 percent this past year — the largest increase in a decade and the first time since 2008 that it has grown by over 1 percent. The value of commercial and residential building permits has grown from $22 million to $87 million in just five years. This growth will certainly help our taxpayers.
The Planning Department, working with the Economic Development Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission, has promoted new and exciting projects that promise to grow the Grand List while maintaining the rural character of our town. For example, the recently approved Perkins Farm project will grow the Grand List, create jobs, provide housing and still allow half of the land to remain open space.
Regarding Human Services, we believe that with a poor economy, unemployment, and an explosion of drug use and overdoses, the town cannot just stand by. We have an obligation to help our fellow citizens when times are tough, and a revitalized Human Services Department, working with local nonprofit providers like the Stonington Community Center, the Mystic YMCA, and the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, is doing just that.
The Stonington Police Department will save the taxpayers at least $2 million by collaborating with the State Police on a new radio system. And the Department of Public Works has acquired a number of new trucks at substantial initial savings on a lease-to-purchase program over the next 20 years. As the aging fleet is replaced, new trucks will be equipped with technology to ensure safe and efficient deployment of vehicles.
A key component of our cost cutting has been downsizing certain operations. The Education Department made a critical decision to consolidate the Pawcatuck and Mystic middle schools into a single Stonington Middle School on Mistuxet Avenue. This will produce substantial savings, and our young students will get to know each other three years before going to Stonington High.
Downsizing is not without its pain. Our popular leaf collection program may have to go from two pickups to one pickup a year, and acquisition of a new $31,000 Leaf-Vac will be deferred at least one year. Many departments and most commissions have been flat-funded in the coming budget year — stretching precious dollars and saving the taxpayers money.
A budget is not just a list of numbers: It is a fiscal roadmap that reflects the policy objectives and obligations of the coming fiscal year and beyond. Some of these requirements reflect past practices and are easy to anticipate. Others involve future needs. And still others anticipate variables such as weather, uncertain economic conditions, declining reimbursements from the state and federal governments, and the vagaries of grant awards.
This has been an extraordinary budget year, due in large part to the fact that the state has dealt our rural towns a terrible blow in reduced municipal aid. This is just the sort of “harm” that The Westerly Sun referred to when it said that “Budgets Aren’t Meant to Harm.”
But one thing is certain. Working together, we have crafted a bipartisan budget that meets our needs if not our desires. It was adopted by the Board of Finance unanimously. We urge approval on Tuesday, May 8.
Robert R. “Rob” Simmons is the first selectman of the Town of Stonington. June Strunk is the chairwoman of the town’s Board of Finance. Frank Todisco is the chairman of the town’s Board of Education.