EAST HADDAM — In response to an overwhelming vote to reject the town budget, the Board of Finance has trimmed its proposal to eliminate an increase in property taxes. The board also promised a more transparent process moving forward.
The budget is scheduled for a second referendum on July 27, and a public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 29, at the Nathan Hale-Ray High School auditorium and streaming on the town YouTube page.
David Carbo, who wrote one of the editorials in the East Haddam News opposing the first budget, told the board at a meeting held after the failed referendum that the town and board needed to be more transparent with the budget.
Carbo said Haddam’s proposed budget provided a better model – with an introductory summary highlighting and explaining changes from the previous year, with a line item budget. Carbo said that the ClearGov website used by the town grouped all of the items into aggregate categories that made it difficult for people to see what was really happening.
“I think there’s some systemic problem with the way this was presented. Yes, there’s problems with the cameras, but those are just individual line items that I can bump off because I know the amount, I know what the request is for, and I can argue against it,” Carbo said. “But if I can’t drill down, at least some level of departmental manager, salary rates and everything else, you don’t really have transparency.”
Finance Chairman William DiCristofario said the board learned several lessons from the overwhelming defeat of the proposed budget. He said they tried to be as transparent as possible, and was disappointed that more people didn’t attend the public budget workshops the board held – but acknowledged the disconnect with the public.
He said the ClearGov website was new this budget season, and was set up with the intention of transparency. DiCristofario said the town would work to improve the website for the next budget cycle.
“We’re here tonight because we do hear what you say, and we do listen to the feedback. Your comments are discussed,” he said. “During the course of our budget workshop some of these items came up and had we received the feedback, then we would have made the changes before we got this far.”
One point of contention during the budget process has been staff pay, and the decision by town officials not to disclose which positions were slated for raises, or to release a salary study comparing compensation in East Haddam to other towns. That study was used in part to set pay raises for 19 non-union staff in the budget.
The board reviewed the proposed raises at a recent meeting, and East Haddam has since released that salary information in an effort to win the public’s trust. A proposed salary increase for the first selectman’s position – which current First Selectman Rob Smith said he would not accept – has also been removed from the new budget proposal.
The budget still includes raises for other staff and elected officials. Fourteen hourly employees would receive wage increases, including library and senior center staff, which amount to an additional $22,235 in the budget compared to last year. Also included in the budget are raises for an administrative assistant, senior center director, recreation director, land use administrator and library director that amount to an additional $17,634.
Altogether, those raises account for 0.11 percent of the budget, and 1.83 percent of the spending increase in the budget.
A flat mill rate
While some in attendance told board members that they were more concerned about transparency than the mill rate, the board outlined more than $500,000 of cuts to prevent an increase in the local rate used to determine property taxes. The previous budget called for $555,943 in spending which would have increased the mill rate by .62 to 31.06 mills. The board brought that down to zero with a combination of $24,963 of unexpected additional revenues from the state and more than $580,000 in cuts.
The cuts include $50,000 from the Board of Education budget, $19,000 from highway construction, and $20,000 in savings from a lower than expected resident state trooper fee. The town received approximately $25,000 in additional funding through the state’s education cost sharing and payment in lieu of taxes programs.
The board also cut specific budget items that had drawn scrutiny ahead of the first vote, including a $9,863 raise for the first selectman’s position, and $40,000 for cameras at the transfer station. The new budget delays the purchase of a new police cruiser for an additional $68,000 in savings.
The largest single cut is a projected $276,000 of HVAC and boiler work. If the town decides to move forward with that project next year, Finance Director Cynthia Varricchio said town officials could use federal funds from the “American Rescue Plan” to pay for it.
In total, including the HVAC work, delays or changes to funding for capital projects and purchases accounted for $482,043 of the budget reductions.
In addition to the public hearing on Tuesday, the Board of Finance and town Finance Department can answer questions about the budget. Please send you questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org