COLCHESTER — The town has entered a budget freeze effective immediately, according to an email from First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos sent to all department heads on Wednesday.
According to the email, the town will only be giving overtime in emergency situations and that all purchases will need approval either from the first selectman or from the town’s finance director.
Bisbikos also said that he will not be filling the position of Director of Operations for the Public Works Department, which he said would open up $90,000 to use for “inflationary concerns.” According to Bisbikos, the consulting group SLR, which was hired to evaluate the Public Works Department, agreed that the position “will not be needed moving forward.”
The freeze comes after the Board of Selectmen last week rejected the Board of Finance’s proposed budget — after two previous budgets failed to receive sufficient public support in town-wide votes – by a 2-1 vote.
Bisbikos said that if the budget failed a third time, it could mean drastic measures in terms of town operations.
“The bottom line is, if this budget goes down, there will most likely be layoffs and there will most likely be services that are cut,” said Bisbikos. “There’s no way around that. And I do not want to be in that position.”
Republican Selectman Jason LaChapelle explained in a post on Facebook that he voted against the latest proposal because he felt that there was a lack of transparency in how the budget had been developed. LaChapelle said he disagreed with the way the board had decided to keep or discard certain items and questioned both the calculations of fuel costs and the revenue estimates that the board put forward.
“While I understand the town needs a budget to operate under, it needs to be a budget that has been presented to the citizens both honestly and transparently. I do not buy into the Board’s doom and gloom that we need a budget now and, therefore, it doesn’t matter how they get to a number so long as they get to one,” wrote LaChapelle.
In a Board of Finance meeting on August 4, board members discussed cutting multiple items from town department budgets in order to reach a budget of $15,636,525, which the Board determined would result in a mill rate of 26.88 for the town.
But on August 10, Board of Finance Chair Andrea Migliaccio expressed concern about the costs of gasoline, diesel fuel and salt for the town. The town’s initial estimates for the cost of fuel was $2.78 per gallon for gas and $3.00 per gallon for diesel. She said she believed the town would need to increase its budget by $85,000 for gasoline and $29,000 for salt to keep up with the rising prices.
In a meeting a week later, Migliaccio said she felt the estimates she had been given for the fuel increases were no longer accurate, and questioned whether it was the purview of the Board of Finance to incorporate fuel costs into their calculations for the budget. She pointed out that the cost of gas had dropped below $4 per gallon.
“That’s not our skill set, to keep up with the cost of fuel — it just isn’t,” she said.
Democrats Mike Egan and Mike Hayes pushed back against the proposed budget, saying that they needed to account for the expected fuel costs.
“If we know the fact that certain costs are actually going to be incurred and we’re not being up front and honest with the taxpayers, that’s a hit to this whole board,” said Egan.
Board members also expressed disagreement over whether to remove certain new items in the budget, including a software program called ClearGov and a driver for the Senior Center to transport seniors to medical appointments. In the latest budget, the board kept the ClearGov software but eliminated the driver at the Senior Center.
Migliaccio said she also felt the town could increase its revenue by $150,000 using ambulance fees, building permits and delinquency collections.
Ultimately, the Board of Finance voted 4-2 on party lines to send a budget of $15,636,525 to the Board of Selectmen, where LaChapelle and Selectwoman Denise Turner voted against sending the budget to a town meeting.
Selectwoman Debbie Bates, who voted in favor of sending the budget to the town, told CT Examiner in an email that she feared that, if the budget did not pass this time, it could potentially change the bond rating for the town. She also said that she was concerned that the delay would push the date that people would receive their car taxes out into the holiday season.
At the meeting, Bisbikos confirmed that a third failed referendum could place the town’s bond rating at risk. He also said that the Board of Selectmen should not be obstructing the budget from going forward to the town. He said it was not their job to scrutinize the numbers that the Board of Finance put forward.
“The Board of Selectmen have one job and one job alone: find the town meeting date, identify that,” said Bisbikos. “At that town meeting date, the public can weigh in. That is their God-given right. And they can make some adjustments, as they deem necessary. And once that is done, we can move forward to a budget referendum.”
Democratic Board of Finance member Mike Egan told CT Examiner that, as he interpreted the town charter, the Board of Selectmen had the right to send the budget back to the Board of Finance for further discussion if the selectmen had concerns.
Finance Director Debbie Kratochvil said that if the budget passed, she planned to implement a stricter system of checks and balances in which either she or the first selectman would have to sign off on any expenditures that would place a department over its budget.
Bisbikos said he planned to call a special meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, August 31.
Town Clerk Gayle Furman said that if the Board of Selectmen moved the budget forward on August 31, it can go to referendum as early as September 28th. Michele Wyatt, the town’s tax collector, said that car tax payments would then be due between November 1st and November 30th.
Wyatt said she had been getting “inundated” with phone calls from people wondering where their car tax bills were.
“I hope we can come to a conclusion soon so my office can do our job,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for my office and it’s frustrating for the customer, the taxpayer.”