Karl Kilduff said that his first three months on the job have felt like drinking water from a firehose, but luckily as Clinton’s first appointed town manager, it’s not a process that he will have to repeat anytime soon.
“In recent history there has been a lot of turnover, so by the time the selectman was up to speed on the issues they were running for re-election,” Kilduff said.
According to Kilduff, the driving force behind the transition to a managerial form of government was to reduce turnover and hopefully foster a better functioning government.
In recent years Clinton has lacked a cohesive plan to guide the town on issues ranging from economic development to infrastructure.
“We need to make a management plan for the next 10 years and stick to it. That sort of consistency is what they’ve been lacking in recent history,” said Kilduff.
The short term
According to Kilduff, setting a horizon line for the town beyond the next two years is a major change for the town finances.
“There are certain things you have to finance as a municipality, fire trucks for example, that are very expensive. You don’t buy them every day, but when they hit, they take a toll,” explained Kilduff. “Instead of a $1 million expense hitting all at once, you set yourself up to have a savings account so that you have the money in place to draw from when it comes time and taxpayers don’t have that shock to the system.”
In recent years, the town has not had a consistent pattern of setting aside savings or of keeping track of future projects and needs.
“Previously they bonded for street paving when they realized they had to do it. That’s a way to do it, but that’s not how I’m going to recommend we do it,” Kilduff said. “They leased vehicles instead of purchasing them outright. It feels cheaper, in the moment, but it always ends up costing the town more.”
Over the last four fiscal years, the town’s capital funding has seesawed as expenses are added to the budget.
In 2016-2017, $1.4 million was budgeted. In 2017-18, that number dropped to just $775,920. In 2018-19, the number shot back up to $1.7 million before falling again in 2019-20 to $775.420.
Kilduff said that he hopes to reduce these budgetary swings and make taxes a little more predictable for Clinton residents.
“We need staff to look at things a little differently than the fundamental assumptions that have been made for years,” Kilduff said. “I plan to help them create a plan and then have the discipline to stick to the strategic plan instead of continuing the pattern of starting down a path, having an election, stopping that and jumping down another path.”
A new budget process
According to Kilduff, instead of focusing the budget process on the percent budget increase, this year his role as a town manager has helped center the discussion instead on the impact on the taxpayer.
“This way, if you want to cut, you have to cut up to a certain dollar amount to actually impact the mill rate or you’re not really doing anything for the taxpayer,” Kilduff said. “It changes the tenor of the conversations. It now is really what is the fiscal impact of the budget on a regular person.”
In this year’s budget, more than $15,000 would need to be cut in order to see a 0.01 reduction of the mill rate. Kilduff said that this approach reduces the last-minute small dollar cuts that might drop the percentage, and sound different to the voter, but actually have no impact when taxes come due.
In the end, the municipal budget came to the town council in a more organized and refined format than usual and with a lower tax increase – 1.92 percent – than has been typical after budget meetings.
The proposed budget is now heading to a town hearing with a property tax increase of 0.22 mills or about $80 for the average taxpayer in Clinton.
“If there was a first selectman they would have to go through the process to scrub and understand the budget presented by the department heads. If you’re a first selectman in your first term, there’s a learning curve to that. If you’re someone who has done it in a few other towns, and understand what to look for, you’re ahead of the game,” said Kilduff, who has worked as town manager in both Darien and North Branford.
According to Kilduff, the town’s previous budget format also lacked transparency and clarity, with only a handful of categories without specific line items to detail the monies set aside.
“The format is something I don’t like. In order to understand what each category was I had to ask a lot of questions about what each line item is. And what different selectmen put in those items varied,” Kilduff said. “It’s not helpful to the council as a decision maker and does not lend itself to analysis.”
Kilduff said that his goal is to make the budget as understandable as possible, so that the town and future councils can easily discuss revisions and changes.
“This was not the battle it used to be in the past. I’ve heard it would be the selectman wants what he wants, then the board of selectmen want what they want, then the board of finance argues with them. For me, this budget is not a hammer to say what I want,” Kilduff said.
The long term
Kilduff said that having a cohesive strategic plan, a more detailed budget process and consistency in leadership will allow Clinton to address problems that have lingered in the background of the town for more than twenty years.
Much like Old Saybrook, Kilduff said that Clinton has been under a consent order from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection since the 1990s to resolve issues of wastewater treatment.
The issue of sewers has been a hot potato issue that no selectman wants to handle, Kilduff said.
“The town has made some forward motion, but it’s been studies. Studies and then studies to confirm what the other study said,” Kilduff said. “We have to get to the point of what the project and solution are going to be.”
Current recommendations include piped drinking water in some areas of town, septic upgrades for others and small-scale sewer systems for areas with the least septic-friendly soil.
“We are talking about a lot of money and impacting people’s lives,” Kilduff said. “It’s no longer a political issue, but a community infrastructure issue so we need to look at this and start toward a solution.”
Currently the town depends entirely on septic wastewater treatment.
Kilduff said that one benefit of installing sewers could be more economic development and revenue for the town, especially on the Boston Post Road.
In addition to sewers, Kilduff expects to spend his first year renegotiating union contracts with the five unionized groups of town employees and he wants to help the town departments move more of their services online.
“We are going to keep marching forward to make things better run and get to that well-functioning government,” he said.