COLCHESTER – In an effort to trim a tax increase from the latest budget proposal, the town’s Board of Finance debated $75,000 of spending cuts ahead of a third referendum planned for Sept. 21.
In their first meeting since Colchester’s second failed budget referendum this year, board members agreed that cutting the town budget enough to fully eliminate a tax increase for local residents was not possible given that the school budget had already been approved with a tax increase. But they also agreed that voters should not be asked a third time to approve an additional position for a police officer, and decided to take more time to consider additional spending cuts.
Board member Andrea Migliaccio said that cutting the proposed officer was not a cut in services, because the position doesn’t exist yet. Migliaccio said the town needs to look at what exactly are the needs of the police department, but that the board couldn’t go forward with the additional hire after being rejected twice – the second time in a vote for fire equipment that was overwhelmingly passed.
“Really the largest initiative in this budget was the police officer position, so are people saying to us, ‘We’re not fully sure that we are accepting of another police officer in this year’?” she asked.
First Selectwoman Mary Bylone, who initially proposed two new police officers this year, urged the board to fund the police officer position and take funds out of the road work budget to eliminate the need for a tax increase.
Bylone said applicants for the positions have numerous other options for employment and would not likely take a position without a guarantee of funding.
“We have heard from an applicant that they have a little concern about taking a position that they will barely be in before it will need to get in next year’s budget at a full year’s salary, and is there a possibility that wouldn’t happen,” Bylone said.
Bylone said road work could be covered with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, and that she could also ask to use ARPA to pay for the second police officer position.
Finance Chair Rob Tarlov pushed back against the idea of using ARPA funds to pay for a police officer or roads. Tarlove said the idea would force the town to come up with alternate funding next year for the position and for the lack of road work funding.
Vice Chair Bernie Dennler questioned how the town could hire anyone when the position was funded by a one-time grant.
Board members also pushed to keep two other new positions, 10-hour-a-week clerks in the building and human resources departments. Dennler, the office manager of the Lebanon First Selectman’s office, said building permits are piling up across the region, and that having an understaffed HR department could cause liability problems for the town.
Board member Mike Hayes agreed, saying builders in town were upset that they can’t move projects forward because of delays in the building department processing applications. He said for a town the size of Colchester to not have a “fully staffed” HR department is setting the town up for lawsuits.
“These are not wants, these are absolutely needs,” he said.
Board member Andreas Bisbikos said the board also needed to cut raises for elected officials in the budget. Bylone did not take her slotted 2.25 percent raise of about 2,000, instead keeping her 2020 salary of $90,526.28. She presented paperwork documenting that she had reduced her salary to the 2020 level on July 6.
The remaining 2.25 percent increases for the treasurer, tax collector, town clerk and two registrars amount to $3,904.43.
“Have you been listening to the voters? They don’t want to see salary increases for elected officials,” Bisbikos, who is running for First Selectman, said. “People have been stating it left and right, the budgets have gone down twice.”
Board member Mike Egan said the board can’t cut the salary line items, which are spread across four different department budgets. The board only has the authority to cut the budget amount.
Tarlov said he didn’t see a $1,500 cut to the town clerk department budget – equal to the amount of the clerk’s raise – actually cutting the salary, since it could be spread across the department. He said they could remove Bylone’s salary increase from the First Selectman’s department budget since she voluntarily declined it, but they would need the other officials to do the same to cut theirs.
More concerning to Tarlov was that those raises for the elected officials other than Bylone had already taken effect when the new fiscal year began in July, even though voters have not approved the new budget that includes them. Colchester Chief Financial Officer Maggie Cosgrove said the town’s labor attorney determined the town policy was that the raises should go forward.
“We need to change the wording on that policy that it needs to be in the approved budget, otherwise we’re paying money that hasn’t been approved by the taxpayers,” Tarlov said.