Nickerson Suggests Further Cuts, as East Lyme Sends Draft 4.6 Percent Budget Increase to Board of Finance

EAST LYME — The Board of Selectmen voted Wednesday to send a $77.63 million budget proposal for fiscal year 2020-21 to the Board of Finance, but First Selectman Mark Nickerson said the budget will need further cuts before it goes to voters for a referendum in May. That budget represents an increase of about 4.6 percent over the previous year.

“Where the budget is today is not passable,” Nickerson said during the selectmen’s meeting with Superintendent Jeffrey Newton.

Nickerson said that the budget, in its current form, could require a mill rate increase of roughly 1.5, which he said would be about twice that of recent years and likely unacceptable to voters.

Counting the costs

In late February, the Board of Education approved a $51.69 million budget — a 4.98 percent increase over 2019-20 — explaining that this increase was in lieu of years of deferred spending.  

“This is a year for a catch up. We need to get ourselves positioned in order to meet the needs of our kids,” Newton told the selectmen, saying that such increases were not “the new norm.”

Apart from the school budget, the town also budgeted for two new police officers, expansion and upgrades to technology, and added hours for paid fire department staff. 

As sent to the Board of Finance on Wednesday, the non-school portion of the budget would be $19.26 million, debt service would be $5.91 million, and capital expenses would be $748,089.

Spending choices

“We’re going to need to cut, or make progress over years and not instantly,” Nickerson told Newton. “We have initiatives in town too that we’re going to need to backburner.”

Selectman Kevin Seery said similarly that Newton should prepare to answer questions about the the impact of adding one math coach instead of two, as the budget requests.

“As you know, it’s going to be tough,” Seery told Newton. “It’s a lot of money.”

Nickerson added that rising school expenses puts more pressure on taxpayers and town spending for public safety.

Nickerson suggested that the school system consider “pay-for-play” fees on students participating in sports and extracurricular activities, that the town consider tax deductions for senior residents to shift the tax burden to younger residents who are more likely to have children in the schools, and that the town combine more maintenance roles with the schools to reduce costs.

Nickerson also said that some school districts around the state have had to allow larger class sizes. 

Superintendent Newton responded that district parents tend to be outspoken in favor of small class sizes and that the district could hear from a “stampede of parents” if there were significant increases to class sizes.

The school board’s budget was a source of controversy during last year’s budget deliberations: in spring 2019, the Board of Finance cut $500,000 from the school’s initial request, later restoring half of that cut after a strong backlash from parents at a public hearing. 

Selectman Rose Ann Hardy, who works as a social studies teacher at East Lyme High School, said that every year has seemed to be a tight year for East Lyme’s budget process.

“I’ve been in this town 55 years,” she said. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘This is a good year to get what you want.’”

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