GROTON — The Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a $130,453,984 budget for fiscal year 2020-21 to the Representative Town Meeting.
With a budget increase of 1.1 percent over fiscal year 2019-20, Mayor Patrice Granatosky said the council had streamlined the budget process and cut expenses to prepare for the economic uncertainty and likely financial strain coming onto many taxpayers as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Granatosky said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We know unemployment is up by unprecedented numbers. We don’t know if businesses are going to be able to survive this. And next year won’t be easy either because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall [in case of a potential second outbreak].”
“You have to be sensitive to what the people can bear at the time,” she added.
Town Manager John Burt identified employee health care, debt service from the Groton 2020 school renovations, and capital improvements as the main budget drivers in his original budget recommendation of $134.8 million. Burt then gave recommendations for where further cuts could be made, and the council on Saturday agreed upon cuts of about $4.3 million to reduce the budget to the $130.4 that they voted on Tuesday night.
To accommodate social distancing guidelines in the wake of the coronavirus, the council has been meeting by teleconference. They also consolidated what would usually be multiple budget workshops into a single meeting that lasted over 10 hours on March 28.
Granatosky said that, according to a review by the town’s lawyer, Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent executive orders allowing town governments to enact budgets without a vote by town meeting or referendum would not apply to Groton because of its Representative Town Meeting form of government.
What’s in the budget and what was cut?
On Saturday, the Town Council voted to reduce the Board of Education’s 2020-21 budget to the minimum budget requirement set by state law — a flat budget equal to that of 2019-20. The school board had already been seeking a modest increase of 0.6 percent, or $496,460.
With the council’s action on Saturday, that increase was changed to zero, leaving the school budget at $77.43 million.
“The Board of Education came in very responsibility with a low increase, but that was before all of this [coronavirus pandemic] happened,” Granatosky said.
She said that the school board and superintendent were accepting of the reduction, that the council had asked pointed questions and the school board “assured us that they would be OK for this year.”
The council also cut about $2.1 million that would have covered capital projects, including $293,000 for a renovation of North Stonington Road Bridge, $600,000 for improvements to the municipal golf course and golf course club house, and $240,000 for improvements to Town Hall.
“Before all these public health emergencies happened we had a list of what we wanted to take care of this year,” Granatosky said, but after the scale of the coronavirus threat became clear, they asked Burt to scale down to what was “essential.”
Using current estimates from town staff, the council agreed to a tentative mill rate of 24.46 for fiscal year 2020-21, which means that taxpayers in Groton would pay $24.46 for every $1,000 of taxable property that they own in town. This would be a 0.29 mill increase over 2019-20’s mill rate of 24.17, but would depend on taking $1.5 million from the town’s fund balance — essentially its budget reserves — to offset the tax increase.
Town Manager John Burt emphasized during the meeting that this tax rate is still tentative. After the RTM makes their reviews and potential cuts or additions, Burt and staff will present definitive options for the council to vote upon.
Councilors Aundré Bumgardner and Portia Bordelon voted against setting that tentative tax rate.
Bumgardner said in a phone interview after Tuesday night’s meeting that he thought it was unwise to tap into the town’s savings when they’re facing the high debt service for Groton 20/20, as well as the economic uncertainties brought by the coronavirus.
“If our anticipated revenues do not equal out to our expenditures, we will have to tap into the fund balance to balance the budget,” Bumgardner said. “I’m concerned about our ability to collect taxes next year if there are issues for folks paying taxes as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic.”
Manager’s message outlines financial challenges in coming years
Burt noted in his original budget message that the budget contains $1.46 million for debt service related to Groton 20/20 — a major rearrangement of the town’s school system including two new elementary schools and consolidating the middle schools into one new building — which voters approved at referendums in 2016 and 2019.
Burt also cautioned in his budget message that challenges facing the town’s finances in future years include likely reductions in state funding and rising costs of health care and retirement benefits.
He also said in his message that the town has historically underfunded capital projects.
“The Town has an extensive list of needed projects in the FY 2021-26 Capital Improvement Program (CIP). It will need to make some tough decisions on which ones to fund. Examples include two bridges (North Stonington Bridge and Quaker Farm Road Bridge) that are not currently usable. The Town Council needs to make a decision to either fund repair of the bridges or else make the decision to close them permanently.”
The town has significant new construction expected in the coming years, Burt wrote, most prominently General Dynamics Electric Boat’s expansion with the $22 billion federal contract. But he said the tax income to Groton from the expansion “will be stifled” for 5 to 10 years depending on the state award and Enterprise Zone tax breaks that the company receives. The Representative Town Meeting is set to meet on Saturday, April 11, at 9 a.m. for their annual budget meeting. According to the town council’s resolution, the meeting will be held on a virtual platform and broadcast live on Groton Municipal Television.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the mill rate increase. This version has been corrected.