Beacon Falls to turn to voters to decide cuts

Board of Finance member Chris Bielik, right, and Selectman Michael Krenesky discuss the Beacon Falls town budget with fellow board members at a meeting Tuesday night.

BEACON FALLS — The Boards of Selectmen and Finance are bracing for the lynch mob when they present the budget they believe is as slim as possible without cutting essential services.

As it currently stands, the budget is set to increase by a little more than 7 percent, a number past history shows voters will not go for.

The Board of Finance plans to present two options at their public hearing set for April 12. The first is the current budget, set at just over $6.1 million, a $428,000 increase over last year. The second option is to eliminate town waste removal, saving nearly $290,000 and reducing the increase to about 3.1 percent.

If voters still aren’t happy with the reduction, the next step would be to lay off five town employees, a step board members were reluctant to discuss at joint meeting Tuesday night.

With revenues down by over $428,000 and departments already strapped for cash, board members were taking a conservative approach to the budget.

“We’ve been overly optimistic in the past,” said Finance Board member Chris Bielik, who hopes to take over as Board of Finance chair after former chair Gerry Smith resigned last month for personal reasons.

In the interim, Wendy Hopkinson is acting chair.

After picking over each line item in the budget to look for savings, board members concluded that only the drastic measures proposed would reduce the budget by a significant amount.

The boards called in the heads of several town departments to defend their budgets, which had little wiggle room for cuts.

The emergency services department justified recently hiring a new daytime employee, saying that increased call volume, equipment, and regulations made the hire necessary. Before, the ambulance had to pass several emergency calls on to nearby towns because they didn’t have the personnel to respond themselves.

“It’s something we put off for a long, long time,” said Jeremy Rodorigo, public information officer for the Beacon Hose Co. No. 1.
The position is fully funded by ambulance fees, he said.

The fire company is also in need of emergency communication upgrades. They received a grant last year for new radios, but never got the last bit of money they need to complete the system, according to Fire Chief Mike Pratt. The town now has several dead zones where they don’t receive a signal, and it’s just a matter of time before someone gets hurt because of it, he said.

The company also requested about $10,000 for new doors.

The town is currently spending $4.14 a gallon on diesel fuel, but they hope to cut that almost in half once they get fuel tanks recently approved in the bond referendum up and running.

Fire trucks also need 12 tires replaced, to the tune of $7,200, according to Pratt.

The total emergency services budget weighs in at about $253,000, a 7.7 percent increase over last year.

Next up to bat was Joe Rodorigo with the Parks and Recreation Department.

He hoped to finance a new lawnmower over the next four years by making other painful cuts to his department’s budget.

He said he’s asked for the new mower for years to no avail.

“It means I’m going to forgo other maintenance to get a piece of equipment I desperately need,” Joe Rodorigo said.

The new machine, which would cost a maximum of $40,000, would significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to mow the town’s fields. Plus, the mower the department currently uses is on its last legs, held together with spare parts, Joe Rodorigo said.
“When it dies, what would you like me to do?” Joe Rodorigo asked.

There are a lot of other items that need upgrades, Rodorigo said. He said he spent this entire line item on vehicle maintenance on a town truck that is 12 years old.

The proposed Park and Recreation Department’s total budget hits $138,000. The only increases were $5,000 for fireworks taken out of last year’s budget and $150 for clerk wages.

Lastly, Kurt Novak, the town clerk, fielded questions on his budget.

The proposed town clerk’s $104,000 budget would be a nearly $7,000 increase over last year. Kurt said his budget has had no increases in the last ten years and he’s already running over for this year.

“I have squeezed every ounce out of my budget,” Novak said. “I’ve held the line as long as I can. The rope is slipping out of my hands.”

Novak said he is stealing from all his other line items to afford $2,400 per month for electronic records mandated by the state. Since home sales have been down in the past few years, the cost of paperwork has too, but any uptick in the economy would push his budget over the edge, Novak said.

The Board of Selectmen made several cuts to requested budgets, including reducing the phone budget from $17,000 to $9,000, and $15,000 for a labor attorney. They suggested reducing vehicle replacement funds by $50,000 and eliminating $25,000 for accounting software, $8,300 for computer replacement, and $10,000 for the Wolfe Avenue Building Committee. Other cuts were a few thousand dollars here and there, not enough to make a big dent in the budget.

“Looking at $1,000, $2,000 changes, I don’t think is going to get us where we’re probably trying to head this evening,” Hopkinson said.

The Board of Selectmen had formerly agreed to gradually increase the First Selectman’s salary to $60,000 over the next four years, but decided to forego any increases, at least for another year.

“Every cut that we’re making in this budget at this time is putting this community back,” Cable said. “It’s very depressing.”
Bielik agreed that small cuts wouldn’t get them very far.

“Get out of here if you’re coming up with $5,000 for fireworks to cut out of this budget. We need real solutions,” Bielik said.

Everyone agreed on what should be done, but were worried about how to present it to the voters.

“I think it should be a joint effort,” Cable said.

The proposed budget would increase the mill rate by 1.3 mills to 28.2, which doesn’t include any increases from the Board of Education, according to Cable.

She said taxpayers want to keep their services without increasing taxes, but that’s just not possible.

“We’re not miracle workers,” she said.

The economy hasn’t improved significantly since the last budget debate, according to Hopkinson.

“I don’t think economically, our taxpayers are in a position to take an increase in the mill rate or in taxes,” Hopkinson.

The boards did find what they were looking for — a single, big cut to the budget, in waste removal.

“You have to go straight to the big trees and start chopping,” said Brian Ploss, a member of the Board of Finance.

The town spends about $123 per person per year on waste removal. Without that service, citizens would have to go to private contractors.

“The cleanest and most sensible way, at this time, is that — no trash pickup,” Cable said.

Board members discussed how best to get voters to agree with them.

“This is only going to work if we get the people to come in and participate,” Ploss said.

Krenesky said the town’s unions need to understand that they may be picking trash tonight, but the next thing is layoffs.

“That’s all that’s left,” Krenesky said.

The consensus of the board was that voters will have to decide what they want.

“It’s meeting the needs of the town with what we know we have to have and finding a way to get the town voters to agree to that and be willing to pay for it. And we saw the acrimony that happened in last year’s budget cycle led us to where we’re at in this year. Does anybody think it’s going to be better than that? It’s not,” Bielik said.

The Boards of Finance and Selectmen will meet again April 5 at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall to prepare their final budget. Officials have not yet decided whether to take the budget to referendum or have a town vote.