East Haddam voters overwhelmingly defeated the town’s budget proposal Tuesday night, by a vote of 274 in favor and 1,242 opposed.
The budget included $36.95 million in spending – a $2.49 million increase [7.2 percent] over last year – and would have raised the mill rate by 0.62 mills to 31.06 mills.
In a public hearing and on social media, residents raised concerns about several items in the budget, including wage increases for the first selectman and 20 non-union town employees and camera systems in the town office building and at the transfer station.
The Board of Finance will hold a workshop at 7 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday to discuss options for revising the budget. The town is planning to hold another referendum in August, the town’s first selectman Rob Smith told CT Examiner.
Smith blamed “misinformation” on social media for the strong reaction against the budget proposal, though he said the town could have done a better job explaining some of the proposed expenses to voters.
“The problem with social media right now is that people make a statement on it and people take it for a fact, they don’t do any checking on it,” Smith said. He added that all the budget information is available on the town website, and that anyone with questions can reach out to his office, the Board of Finance, or the finance director.
Smith said statements made on social media that the town was planning to spend $150,000 in one year to install video conferencing in every room in the town office building were not correct.
Smith said the video cameras are planned for conference rooms where board and commission meetings are held. The meetings videos are available on the town YouTube page. The cameras will cost $150,000, Smith said, but over 10 years. The cost in next year’s budget was $15,000.
“Every one of the [budget] meetings was recorded and available to look at on YouTube, and in fact, many of the people that had issues did look at it, obviously, because they weren’t in attendance [at the meetings],” Smith said. “Justifying, again, the use of tele-meeting capabilities.”
Smith, who is not running for re-election and will finish his term in November, also said he tried to make it clear from the very beginning of the budget discussion that he would not be taking any pay increase. Smith agreed that it wouldn’t look good for an elected official to give themselves a raise, and he never intended to give himself one.
“That seems to be a big bone of contention, so that’s easily enough removed, since I was not going to be taking anything anyway,” Smith said.
Smith said the town intended to move ahead with wage increases for some staff members, including some department heads. He explained that the town had commissioned a study comparing staff pay with other towns. Smith said the idea was to raise compensation to the minimum level of other towns in the state.
According to Smith, the town had not named the positions targeted for added compensation, because officials didn’t want to raise hopes before the vote. Smith said he intends to present that information at forums next week. He said he thinks people will be surprised by how little some long-time employees are paid.
“People forget that the first selectman’s office is negotiating millions of dollars of contracts with various bargaining units, and no one usually has a big issue with that,” Smith said “But this was a total of $45,000 and change.”
In a meeting Tuesday night, members of the Board of Finance said they would need to cut about $550,000 from the budget to avoid a tax increase — a figure well beyond the cost of budget items attracting public concern.
Smith said the aim from the beginning was to get to a budget requiring no tax increase, but that goal wasn’t practical.
“We might go back to zero, if it’s achievable,” Smith said. “There may be some pushback when people see where some of the cuts have to be, whether it’s the Board of Selectmen’s budget or the Board of Education budget. But that’s what the workshops will be about, maybe we’ll get more clarity about exactly what people are looking for or concerned about.”