East Lyme Leaders Consider Reducing 2020-21 Budget Proposals Amid Economic Uncertainty from Virus

EAST LYME — First Selectman Mark Nickerson and Superintendent Jeff Newton said at a Wednesday Board of Finance meeting that their boards would discuss potential reductions to the proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budgets given the economic uncertainty brought by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know [a 4.98 percent budget increase] is not appropriate right now with what’s going on in this community,” Newton said during the teleconference meeting. “We are working really hard to make some reductions and we plan to bring that information forward soon.”

In late February, the Board of Education voted to send the finance board a $51.7 million budget for fiscal year 2020-21 — a 4.98 percent increase over the school board’s 2019-20 budget. Board members at the time called it a “catch-up” budget to make up for what they described as years of deferring costs. 

The Board of Selectmen, in early March, sent the finance board a total budget proposal (which includes the school board budget) of $77.6 million for 2020-21 — a 4.6 percent increase over the current fiscal year. Even at that time, Nickerson said further cuts would be needed and that the budget would be “not passable” at referendum.

But given the coronavirus pandemic and declaration of a statewide emergency, Gov. Ned Lamont has since suspended the requirement that town and school budgets be approved by referendum.

Finance board Chair Camille Alberti said during the Wednesday night meeting that she didn’t necessarily agree with the executive order to suspend that referendum requirement although she understood the governor’s motivation to move public meetings to teleconference given the virus’ spread.

“Therefore I promise that we will do our very best to adopt the most responsible budget possible given the uncertainty of the economic fallout from this pandemic,” Alberti said. “In return I ask the residents of East Lyme to believe in our board’s commitment to not abuse the power that has been bestowed on our board by the governor.”

The governor’s March 14 order provided for public meetings by teleconference, and members of the public will be able to dial in and watch or listen to all these meetings.

Alberti said in a phone interview Thursday that members of the public will also be able to view budget documents on the town’s website and submit comments to be entered into the record.

The Board of Finance’s revised budget schedule would start with presentations by department heads and the school board in early March. Alberti and other board members said that the additional time would allow them to gain more numbers on how the pandemic and the response are affecting the local economy and the town’s finances.

The finance board plans to establish on May 27 the town’s mill rate for 2020-21, which Alberti said would have the budget decided at roughly the same time that it has been in other years.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson and finance board member Anne Santoro both anticipated that tax collection could be lower because many businesses in town having been closed and residents laid off as a result of the pandemic.

Nickerson said that the Board of Selectmen would discuss at their next meeting different options that Gov. Lamont has given towns for modifying tax deadlines or deferring some payments.

Financial impacts of shutdowns

Nickerson told the finance board that town services continue to be offered by phone, mail, and other means even though Town Hall has been closed to the public since the Board of Selectmen declared a local state of emergency on March 16.

Nickerson said he had reached a memorandum of understanding with the largest union of town employees — not counting the teachers’ union — in which some employees who are working reduced hours will give up accumulated paid time off in order to receive 100 percent of their pay.

“We wish not to lay anyone off during this period,” Nickerson said. “We wish not to furlough. We wish for people not to lose their jobs because everyone needs to bring home a paycheck and everyone needs to pay their bills and put food on the table. But we needed to strike a compromise, and we did.”

Some town staff are continuing to work at 100 percent of their usual hours, Nickerson said, pointing in particular to public works employees who continue to do work such as sweeping roads and maintaining storm drains.

Superintendent Newton said that the governor’s March 31 executive order required that the Board of Education continue to pay all employees in their operating budget even while the schools are closed.

“That’s pretty much everybody on our staff,” Newton said, with the exception of some staff for a robotics program and other after-school programs, who are usually paid through revenue from those programs and have been furloughed.

Newton noted that, before the major responses to the pandemic began, he had ordered a freeze on the district’s 2019-20 budget, which restricted staff’s ability to spend.

“We’re working out where we’re going to land at the end of the year with our budget,” he said. “That’s still in process and we will keep doing that and we are taking this seriously.

The same March 31 order from the governor included a requirement that school boards keep up some payments to the bus companies for student transportation, Newton said. The school’s attorney and finance director are negotiating with the district’s bus company — First Student — how much they’ll continue to pay.

“We know we’re not going to be [paying the company] at 100 percent but we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to be,” Newton told the finance board.

The district has been able to save some costs on electricity, natural gas, and heating its pool, Newton said. Custodians and some contractors are continuing to work.

The school district has sent over 290 of its computers into the community to help with education while schools are closed, Newton said. He said about 98 percent of those are going to students, with a few going to teachers. The district has also supported about 30 families with devices giving internet access. All of these items will eventually be returned, he said.

Both Newton and Nickerson said that they’ve been keeping records of added expenses from the virus so as to later seek reimbursement from FEMA.

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