By Robert R. “Rob” Simmons
The Town of Stonington has a great nautical tradition of fishing, sailing and whaling, the China trade, Capt. Palmer’s Antarctic discovery and so forth. We have also survived some great hurricanes, not the least of which was in 1938, which devastated the Town.
So when we say we are good at “weathering the storm” it means something. And for the last three years we have been pretty good at experiencing and surviving some pretty bad economic storms — many of which have blown out of Hartford.
Earlier this year Gov. Lamont handed us a budget with a 27% cut in education cost sharing and additional cuts in adult education and local capital improvement programs. He added a new $100,000 teacher’s retirement contribution for the town. And state Sen. Looney offered a statewide municipal property tax scheme and state takeover of our local municipal motor vehicle tax.
None of this is good. But we have been in this position before. And the response of the town boards of education, finance and selectmen has been uniformly bipartisan, collaborative and visionary. Rather than complain, we have worked together to restructure how we deliver services in town to reduce cost and increase efficiency.
The bottom line is that we offered and passed a budget to referendum this past week in record time with no questions from the floor. Why? Because we have worked this budget line by line through eight iterations, cutting, adjusting, reexamining and rethinking in full public view.
Is it perfect? No. Is everyone happy? No. But it will allow us to deliver necessary services at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer.
One issue of concern to our citizens was sidewalks along Route 1 in Pawcatuck. Not only have we requested up to $500,000 in grant money from the state, and $900,000 from the federal government, but we have also funded an $80,000 engineering design to complete the job.
Another area of local concern was funding for our libraries. We have fully funded the Westerly and Mystic-Noank libraries with over 6,000 local card holders, and added funds to the Stonington Free Library so they can stay open on Fridays. We have also committed funds, which leverage private donations, to provide ADA accessibility.
The good news in education is that the West Vine Street and Deans Mills schools’ renovate-to-new bonded projects — the largest in town history — are virtually complete under cost and on time, while the newly named Stonington Middle School will be ready for students in the fall. The former Pawcatuck Middle School will become the new Board of Education Central Office and the Alternative Education Center, with estimated savings of $1 million.
A special committee called the Stonington Facilities Committee has been populated and funded in the budget to study future uses for the Old Mystic Elementary and West Broad Street schools, which are scheduled to be turned over to the town by the Education Department later this year.
Included in the budget are much-needed funds to study the Mystic Waste Water Treatment Plant inflow and infiltration [I&I] problems as well as a capital investment in the Mystic-to-Stonington diversion system to improve the overall efficiency of the plants, which is vital to our economic development. We paid for these facilities, so it makes sense to use them.
Critical to absorbing some of the increased costs of bonding for our schools and wastewater treatment is the 99% collection rate of our town tax collector and the excellent work of our Planning and Zoning Commission and Economic Development Committee to grow the grand list through economic development consistent with the character of the town.
Over the past three years the value of residential and commercial building permits totaled over $205 million, which is just short of the $222 million total for the past eight years! Strong growth in the grand list keeps our taxes very competitive with other towns in the region and allows longtime residents to stay in their homes.
A budget is not just a list of numbers — it is the fiscal roadmap that reflects the policy objectives, priorities and obligations of the coming fiscal year and beyond. We are hopeful that this budget will meet the needs of our citizens while, at the same time, protecting the taxpayer from any unnecessary burden.
Stonington is fortunate to have an extraordinary resource of public-spirited taxpaying citizens, volunteers, employees, administrative staff, managers and elected officials who have done their best to put “Stonington First.” They all have worked together to craft a budget that meets our needs in a very challenging time.
Together we will “weather the storm” as our ancestors have before us if we vote for the budget on April 30th.
The writer is the first selectman of the Town of Stonington.