OLD LYME — In the eight years since he last worked on a budget as first selectman, Tim Griswold said that one of the most dramatic changes he’s seen as he works on the budget for 2020-21 has been a drop in aid from the state.
In Old Lyme’s fiscal year 2010-11 budget, revenue from Education Cost Sharing — the biggest single annual infusion of state money for many towns — was about $605,500. In fiscal year 2017-18, that state funding had dropped to about $205,500. The town’s fiscal year 2018-19 audit showed that number grew to about $241,500.
“It’s been dwindling,” Griswold said in a Friday interview. “You get to the point that you don’t get that much at all so you just want to say [to the state], ‘Just free us from all your mandates and you can keep your money,’” he laughed.
Discussing the budget for 2020-21, Griswold said the ongoing budget deliberations will be affected by a drop in the town’s overall assessment of taxable property on its grand list, an unprecedented reduction in the budget for Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, and rising salaries and insurance costs.
When Griswold and Town Finance Director Nicole Stajduhar first presented a preliminary 2020-21 budget to the Board of Finance on January 21, they were estimating an increase in the operating budget compared to 2019-20 of $387,742 or 4.05 percent. The capital budget was estimating a decrease of $462,750, or 25.85 percent.
These numbers are preliminary, and will all be subject to review and adjustment by the Board of Finance until at least the end of March.
The town’s total budget expenditures for 2019-20 were $38,912,287. Of that, $9,565,358 was town government operating expenses, $1,790,250 was the outlay for capital funds, and by far the largest portion — $27,556,679, or about 70 percent — was Old Lyme’s share of the Lyme-Old Lyme School budget.
Stajduhar estimated that the 2020-21 preliminary budget will fund an increase in all police union, public works, and other town employee compensation by 2.25 percent, with some employees also receiving raises for seniority.
Stajduhar also said that health insurance costs for the town could increase by 8 to 10 percent, or about $56,000.
Several town departments also requested additional part-time hours for particular projects, including carpentry at the Department of Public Works and substitution hours at the Town Clerk’s Office. Griswold said on Friday that although the town may fund additional hours, it’s unlikely that the town will hire additional employees.
School budget means low costs, while grand list could mean higher tax rate
Old Lyme’s most recent grand list — the inventory of all taxable property in town — showed a drop in assessed value of 2.36 percent compared to the previous year, which Griswold said will put pressure on the mill rate — the amount of tax paid to the town per $1,000 of the assessed value — to rise.
“If the grand list goes down, to pay the same tax bill, the mill rate has to go up,” Griswold said.
That rate increase will be felt differently depending whether individual properties increased or dropped in value in the latest assessment.
Griswold was more enthusiastic about the school budget, which amounts to about $35 million for 2020-21, a first-time year over year drop in the budget by .05 percent, or $18,651.
“The fact that it’s basically a flat budget is definitely a help,” Griswold said.
Griswold said, however, that the town will not know its precise share of the budget until at least early April, when student enrollments are tallied for the purpose of apportioning costs between Lyme and Old Lyme.
Griswold said that the current year budget reduction came as a result of paying down the town’s two-decade-old debt.
He also noted that in the coming years the town will need to pay for expected renovations to Lyme-Old Lyme schools, making this a good year for the town “to take care of a few things,” roads, bridges, vehicles, and machinery.
“We’re not looking to do a lot of new things because we’re looking to digest what we already have on our plate, which is a fair bit.”
The town will begin paying back a 10-year $1.25 million loan for renovations of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in fiscal year 2020-21, said Griswold. The budget may also include the cost of a study of a possible expansion of the Lymes’ Senior Center.
“I’m cautioning let’s not go crazy with a huge study,” Griswold said.
“Not that you want to skimp, but if the people [in town] who have a vision can explain all of that then maybe the consultant can have less of a task… I would just hate to see, if it was a 1,500 square foot expansion, to spend $50,000 just to study it.”
The Board of Finance is expected to review various pieces of the budget until late March or early April, Griswold said.
A public hearing on the budget has been scheduled for April 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall. A vote on the budget is provisionally scheduled for May 18.
A budget hearing for Lyme-Old Lyme Schools is scheduled for April 6 at 6:30 p.m. in the Middle School auditorium. A district meeting on the budget is scheduled for May 4. A referendum is scheduled for May 5. These dates are subject to change and depend on Board of Finance’s schedule of meetings.