EAST LYME — At a meeting on the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development late last month, two residents debated whether or not East Lyme could still be considered a “small town.”
Asked that same question in a Tuesday interview, First Selectman Mark Nickerson agreed that the town had changed significantly in the roughly 35 years that he’s lived here, but he added,
“Is it a small town? It’s still got a lot of small town charm. You can walk up and down the boardwalk and walk into the grocery store and know everybody. Yes, we have lots of visitors, but you feel like we’re all still connected. And yet, now we have bigger responsibilities — responsibilities to our citizens, who expect us to show up in four minutes with an ambulance to take them to the hospital and save their lives. They expect the fire trucks to work, and they expect the plows to get out of the garage and actually plow the snow.”
Nickerson said that providing these public safety services is his top priority in his annual budget message to the Board of Selectmen on February 5.
Nickerson’s draft budget proposal summary, provided to CT Examiner by town Director of Finance Anna Johnson by email on February 6, called for a town budget of $26 million, which would be an increase of $1.11 million or 4.46 percent over the current fiscal year 2019-20.
Nickerson underscored in the Tuesday interview that the selectmen would be reviewing and potentially trimming the budget in the coming weeks.
“It’s a starting point. It’s always a starting point and never the end result,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. This is what the collaboration between the department heads that I work with and my office presented to the Board of Selectmen. And then it goes through the process with the Board of Finance and the town’s decision. So it’s a starting point.”
The East Lyme Board of Education has not yet passed a budget, which typically accounts for about two-thirds of overall town expenditures. The board has scheduled a public forum to present their proposal of about $52 million on February 24.
What’s in the town budget?
The proposal would support a $236,000 increase to the police budget, primarily to hire two additional officers. Nickerson wrote in his budget proposal that the police department is staffed below levels recommended by national agencies. According to Nickerson, a town of East Lyme’s size and population should have about 30 officers, six more than the 24 currently employed.
“We know we can’t take six on immediately. We know we have to step into that. So we’re proposing two additional police officers, and we’ll see where that conversation goes. But we also have a responsibility to have enough police officers to protect our citizens and to protect our police if there’s a major incident.”
The Niantic Fire Department would receive an increase of $56,000 and Flanders Fire Department an increase of $26,000 for contracted wage increases and to add part-time firefighter hours to cover shifts once covered by volunteers.
Nickerson explained in Thursday’s interview that fire department volunteering has declined nationwide as more people take on second jobs or work longer hours while firefighter certifications have become more demanding.
“We’re paying now for hours of coverage through part-time firemen that used to be covered by volunteers. We don’t have the volunteers so we need to pay someone to be at the firehouse and to respond to our calls — both EMT calls and fire calls and accidents, because there’s not enough volunteers and that’s a national trend.”
The town also proposes purchasing a new fire truck in its budget this year and another in the next several years, Nickerson wrote. The purchases would be paid for by bonding.
Additionally, the budget calls for information technology services to expand to include coverage 24 hours per day, every day of the year. Nickerson said that the town will also gather IT services into one budget, at a cost of about $114,000, but which will allow for decreases in planning, dispatch, police, and emergency management budgets.
Information technology is especially important for the town’s emergency services and records related to taxes, marriages, and police work, Nickerson said. And cyber security is increasingly important for town governments.
“Cybercriminals find that small towns are easy to pick off.”
In his budget proposal, Nickerson also said that the town intends to increase its Unassigned Fund Balance — essentially the town reserves — over the next few years.
In contrast to 2019-20 when the town took $175,000 from the reserves to offset expenses, Nickerson does not propose drawing from those reserves in 2020-21 in an effort to protect the Unassigned Fund Balance.
Boundaries to overdevelopment
As this budget proceeds, East Lyme is also grappling with how best to balance conservation and development. Nickerson said that developments like Costco and the Gateway Commons development bring added tax revenue to the town. Nickerson also said that he believes there are enough limiting factors for the town to keep development under control.
“It will help,” Nickerson said of Costco. “It will be added to the grand list. And there has been some development in town. I don’t know if some of this is just a product of our own success, but we’re an active town. People want to come here and move their businesses here and invest in our town.”
Nickerson said that he wasn’t worried about the town receiving excessive development because only 4 percent of East Lyme’s land is zoned for commercial activity and the town’s limited sewer capacity puts a cap on development.
“I’m confident that the 4 percent and our zoning will protect our town,” he said.
East Lyme’s most recent grand list — the record of all taxable property in town — showed 1.28 percent growth from October 2018 to October 2019. As of October 2019, the town has over $2.2 billion in taxable assets. These 2019 numbers will be used to calculate the mill rate for fiscal year 2020-21.
Two different companies related to the Gateway development make up the town’s second and third largest taxpayers on the 2019 Grand List. GDEL Residential LLC owns $27,698,720 of property subject to local taxes and the Gateway Development has $11,757,620.
Nickerson said the town has also seen recent investment in Midway Plaza and in the planned conversion of Niantic Motel into a Best Western, which are signs of redevelopment without reducing the town’s preserved open space.
“That’s someone believing in East Lyme,” Nickerson said. “We’re talking about redevelopment. We’re talking about taking tired properties and reinvesting. And with that comes an increasing grand list because properties are valued higher.”