CLINTON — It’s been a year since the town hired Karl Kilduff as town manager to oversee the municipal budget, and members of the town council say that they can already see the benefits of having a professional in charge of the town’s finances.
“Having him in place has had a huge impact on the town,” said Chris Aniskovich, chair of the town council.
On Nov. 19, 2019, Clinton transitioned from a board of selectmen form of governance — with a first selectman as “town CEO”— to an appointed town manager overseen by a seven-member elected town council.
Aniskovich said that the transition happened quickly. The town manager selection process was happening at the same time as the town council was elected. The new council was seated in January 2020, and Kilduff was hired a few weeks later.
A town manager is an appointed, not an elected, position, which caused some hesitancy when the idea of switching forms of government first arose.
“I had my doubts initially because it does remove some of that direct democracy,” said town council member and Green party leader Eric Bergman.
But a town manager form of government also allows decisions to be made, ostensibly, without politics getting in the way.
“Regardless of who is sitting in that seat, the job’s the same,” said Aniskovich.
“In the past we had budget sessions that were so partisan that it became difficult for the facts to get out there,” said council member and State Rep. Christine Goupil, D-Clinton, who was also Clinton’s prior first selectman.
Bergman said that having a town council is more “civil”, and leads to less political infighting.
Goupil said that another advantage to having a town manager was continuity. A first selectman runs for re-election every two years, meaning that longer-term projects run the risk of stalling or going unfinished if an elected official has different priorities than his predecessor.
Budget FY 2022
Kilduff, who was previously the executive director of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, said that he believes having a town manager with his expertise has freed the town from needing to hire a grant writer or a labor lawyer to negotiate union contracts.
He is proposing a budget of $59,012,976 for fiscal year 2022, an increase of $2.7 million from the previous year.
The increase includes $144,000 for the town and $995,551 for the school district. The majority of the increases are in salaries and healthcare costs with the remainder in capital expenditures.
Kilduff said some of the capital projects they were proposing included replacing the town’s radio-dispatch system, which is no longer supported by the manufacturer. The budget also includes funding for dashboard and body cameras, a mandate from the state’s police accountability bill, and some changes in funding paving, and materials for the fire department.
Kilduff said the town’s grand list has increased by 5.7 percent as a result of a re-valuation this year and the mill rate is projected to drop from 31.25 to 30.84, a 1.61 percent decrease.
He also budgeted for lower vehicular taxes and permit revenues, assuming that fewer people will be traveling or buying new vehicles. But, limits on travel led residents to make home improvements over the summer, increasing the revenue from permits.
The governor’s decision to flat-fund the Educational Cost Sharing program for the next two years will also bring in more money than expected. And local the town is expecting additional federal coronavirus funding that will go toward the schools.
Kilduff said that when he budgeted last year, he used 2008 as a model for the amount of revenue he expected the town to lose during the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of the strong real estate market, however, the town did not have to face a worst-case scenario. Kilduff said that when he created the budget, he expected $170,000 in real estate conveyance tax for the whole year but the town received $299,000 in the first seven months.
Aniskovich said he thinks that many people don’t fully understand the new form of government, and they wonder why they are not hearing from or seeing the town manager, as they would with a first selectman.
“What people are, I think, having a hard time grasping is that town manager is an apolitical position,” said Aniskovich.
The question of who should be communicating information to the town has been a source of concern at town council meetings during the past year. Goupil said she thought the charter did not define clearly enough whose role it was to communicate with the public.
Goupil said she expects that the large number of first-time members on the council necessitates a “learning curve” as people get up to speed on how budgets work. Previously, budgeting was the purview of the Board of Finance, which was dissolved with the shift in government.
Aniskovich said he’s been making an effort to reach out to the community and explain how the new form of governance works.
“We do need to be more visible,” agreed Bergman.
Goupil said she hopes that the town manager will take on a greater role in communications going forward. She said the goal of having a town manager was fiscal management and transparency, and she said Kilduff had done a good job of communicating the budget to the town council.
Clinton’s budget will go up for a referendum on May 12, after a public hearing on April 7 at 6 p.m.