Selectmen trim $170,000 from town budget

BEACON FALLS — Beacon Falls officials will again seek to pass a municipal budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year next week after residents turned down, by about 60 votes, a proposed budget representing a 7.1 percent increase over the current year’s spending plan last Wednesday.

The joint boards of finance and selectmen took more than three hours Tuesday night to trim an additional $169,835 from the proposed budget in response to the referendum’s failure. The new, $5.69 million budget — a $221,567, or 4 percent, increase over the 2009-10 budget — will be voted upon via paper ballot at a town meeting, June 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Woodland Regional High School.

Last Wednesday, a proposed $5.86 million budget—a $391,000 increase over the 2009-10 budget—failed a public referendum, 307-245. The 552 voters included six absentees, four of whom voted ‘no.’

“They’ve got to cut the budget,” said William Barnum, a no-voter, as he and his wife were leaving the polls. “People just can’t afford it. Taxes are already too high.”

John Stronkowski, another resident, added, “I voted against the budget because we have to have some restraints. … Every year, one-mill increase after one-mill increase, it’s a snowball effect. With everyone making cuts, we have to hold the line.”

The approximately $170,000 in cuts approved by the joint boards Tuesday — nearly double the combined total of the previous two rounds of trimming — comes from various areas, including $61,000 in employee medical insurance and benefits; $30,000 from a part-time police shift; $20,000 in police overtime costs; $16,635 from cutting library hours; $14,500 from operating the town dump for half of the current schedule; $11,700 from eliminating road sweeping; $10,000 in town counsel fees; $5,000 from eliminating next year’s fireworks show and family day; and $1,000 from a settling pond project.

Residents had demanded, at a May 18 public hearing, that the town look for more savings on the municipal side in light of an earlier referendum on the Region 16 school system budget.

Beacon Falls voters rejected that budget, but Prospect voters’ strong support overwhelmed their opposition as the Region 16 referendum ultimately passed. The two towns share responsibility for the education budget according to each one’s share of enrolled students. Enrollment shifted toward Beacon Falls this year; consequently, Beacon Falls will shoulder a $602,000, or 4.8 percent, increase in education spending.

So voters implored town officials to find savings on the municipal side and offset the increase in school spending, which is now set in stone.

First Selectman Sue Cable has maintained that further cuts to the town budget will compromise its ability uphold the level of services residents are used to.

“As far as I’m concerned, the budget that was presented [and voted upon at the June 2 referendum] was a very minimum one,” she said in a phone interview last week. “We know how hard times are and everything else, but now it is going to affect the whole operation of the town.”

The joint boards of finance and selectmen are poised to make more drastic cuts than those made Tuesday. Considered were further cuts worth approximately $230,000, which would have resulted in a decrease of about .16 percent compared to this year’s budget. Those cuts would have included eliminating summer programs and sports subsidies, putting off some capital improvement projects (including street maintenance and guardrail installation) and, perhaps most notably, cutting a day from every town employee’s work week.

Also considered Tuesday was a plan to eliminate the tax relief provided to senior citizens. The town gives $500 to qualified seniors who apply, in order to help those with low incomes shoulder their tax burden, and it costs the town between $130,000 and $140,000 per year.

Those cuts — which were “very, very painful to recommend,” Cable said — were considered but not acted upon. Still, the nearly $170,000 in cuts made Tuesday brings the total cut from the originally proposed budget to about $293,000, or more than four percent of the overall town budget.

“We’re not out to fatten the budget,” Cable said Tuesday. “I don’t remember ever having a fat budget as long as I’ve been around. Bottom line, we weren’t sure what the people wanted so we did our best. Personally, I feel like it’s kicking our community down and moving us backward. But we’ll get back again.”

Keeping overall spending flat, Cable said, “Would require us to cut almost $1 million [from the municipal budget]. I’ve said this before: You might as well just close the town.”

She said she didn’t want to hold another referendum given the low turnout at last week’s vote.

“We’re not even going to go to referendum,” she said. “You spend all that money on the referendum, and only 500 people come out, out of 3,600 voters [14 percent]. You know, that’s pretty sad.”

She may have expected a better turnout after sending an automated phone message to residents registered in the town’s Code Red system last Tuesday. Though well-intentioned, that transmission was jarring to voters who thought the system was used only for dire emergencies.

“[Cable] sent out a code red alert saying everyone should come out and vote for the budget,” Barnum said. “That’s only supposed to be for emergencies. It scared the daylights out of my wife.”

Cable said the confusion arose from the way Code Red, a vendor that sells the automated phone alert service to the town, appears on caller identification units. There are two different services paid for in the town’s contract with the company — emergency automated calling and informational automated calling — but people’s caller IDs apparently display “Code Red,” regardless of which line is being used.