COLCHESTER — According to Board of Finance Chair Andrea Migliaccio, the first budget that the board proposed for the town was “great.”
The second budget was “close to perfection.” The third budget was more challenging — they had to “pull back the strings.”
And the fourth budget?
“Just difficult,” said Migliaccio.
After the third proposed budget for the town of Colchester was voted down on September 28, members of the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen conveneed in a joint meeting on Wednesday. Discussion revolved around whether the most recent failure was the result of bad communication and poor transparency or because the requested dollar amount was just too high.
Selectwomen Denise Turner and Rosemary Coyle said they did not want to see the budget decreased any further, except to eliminate a new $13,000 transparency software for town hall. Coyle said she was concerned that lowering the budget amount any further would put the town in the same position it found itself in this year — with a shortfall at the end of the year.
“We have to build confidence in this budget. We have to make the people, the citizens, believe that everything in this budget is more than needed at this point in time,” she said. “I’m very concerned that we’re not going to make it through the budget year with the budget that went down.”
Selectwoman Debbie Bates agreed that the software needed to be eliminated and said that there needed to be a greater effort to get the town on board.
Board of Finance member Tim Vaillancourt expressed frustration that the board was obviously not listening to the people of Colchester.
“We’ve had three referendums that failed, and yet we’re sitting here talking about it being a messaging problem,” he said. “People are tired of paying taxes in this town, and they want to pay less in taxes. Period.”
Selectman Jason LaChapelle said that while he ideally would like to see a budget with a zero increase, he also said he didn’t see how it would be possible to cut the budget any further when last year the town had spent $175,000 over what it had budgeted for.
LaChapelle said the Board of Finance needed to take a “deep-dive” and look at every one of the line items in the budget so that it understood where cuts could and couldn’t be made.
“I think the biggest issue with the budgets all along has been a lack of transparency and accountability … we have dropped the ball and have been unwilling to take any accountability for our failures as an administration on presenting this budget in an open and transparent way,” he said.
Board of Finance member Mike Egan said that the board needed to look at the budget transfers and make sure it understood and had addressed why the fire, police and public works department had gone over their budgets.
He also expressed concern that more cuts in the budget would also mean foregoing necessary services.
“It’s either the services have to be reduced, or the actual budget has to be increased,” he said. “I think we’ve been underfunding the services that we want to provide. So either we have to cut the services that we provide, or start getting to a point where we actually put the funds in the budget that will actually fund those services.”
Board of Finance member Art Shilosky said that the overtime for the fire department and police department was not the result of poor budgeting, but from needing extra personnel during the COVID pandemic.
“They were a necessity. We were in a pandemic. We needed the people at the firehouse, and then we needed the police to do their job,” he said.
First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos said they did need to discuss what the impact would be of reducing the budget further on the different departments in town.
Bisbikos said that the police department’s overage had to do with a retirement and having a person in training, and that the fire department had overtime costs. He said he planned to speak with the fire chief about adding additional firemen to minimize overtime.
For public works, Bisbikos said, part of the problem was tree removal that needed to happen in the town.
“We’ve had a couple situations … where trees fell on cars here in Colchester and people were inches away from losing their life. And that kind of neglect over the years is going to find us in a lawsuit that’s going to cost us far more than any increase in that budgetary item,” Bisbikos said. “I know we have to keep the spending responsible, but there is that safety element and I do trust the professionals on the ground when they tell me something is a safety concern.”
Coyle also addressed another concern about the budget, which were the town’s contracts for fuel, diesel and salt. In earlier meetings of the Board of Finance, members had called into question whether the numbers proposed for commodities were accurate. Coyle said that the town had locked in the contracts for the cost of the commodities for the remainder of the year, and that those costs should be reflected in the budget.
Board of Finance member John Thomas said he thought the board should leave the budget as it was and concentrate on better informing the townspeople about what was in the budget and put forward a unified front.
“We all need to get along right now, better than we ever have. We need this town to move forward as a single unit together,” said Thomas. “And the only way that’s going to happen is we take away the finger pointing, we take away the sarcasms, we take away the attitudes and the selfish thoughts that ‘I want this, or I’m not going to do it.’ We need to work for the town, which is what we all get elected for.”
Residents of Colchester weighed in on the discussion as well, with multiple people expressing frustration at the boards for what they called “middle school drama.”
“I do agree that there is a portion of the community that feels like the budget is too low. And I agree … there is a portion of the community that feels like the budget is too high,” said resident Jen Cox. “How do you get around that? It would be presenting a budget that is thought of to be one that’s presentable to the town by all of the Board of Finance and hopefully all of the Board of Selectmen.”
Cox said she felt that the communication from the town was the key problem in not getting the budget passed.
“Most of the community is not really looking at the minutiae of the budget. They want their leaders to present something to them that they all can stand behind,”she said.
Resident Justin Ford said he had been following the budget for the last six months, and that he had concerns about what he was seeing on social media.
“I voted no on a couple of budgets just because I lacked confidence in the data that I was seeing and really the overall discourse and messaging,” he said.
Some citizens also said they felt the Board of Education budget, which represents the majority of spending in Colchester and has already been approved for next year, was too high.
Marjorie, a town resident, said that there were many senior citizens in the town who lived on fixed incomes.
“There are a lot of senior citizens in this town. Do you expect us all to leave if we can’t afford to pay the taxes anymore?” she asked.
Migliaccio said that the Board of Finance would plan to meet next Wednesday to review new information about last year’s budget and to begin developing a new budget to send to the town.