BEACON FALLS — The mood was inquisitive but cordial, suggestive but mostly satisfied, and at the end of Tuesday evening, the town budget that emerged from a public hearing and subsequent Board of Finance meeting was almost identical to the one that entered.
The proposed 2010-11 budget now stands at $5.95 million, a $476,554, or 8.7 percent, increase over the current budget; the board trimmed a mere $38,500 Tuesday, after public comment. Residents will vote to accept or reject the budget at a town meeting May 5 at 7 p.m. at the senior center.
That vote will come a day after the Region 16 school district holds a referendum on its $36.6 million budget, which would require almost $600,000 worth of additional tax revenue from Beacon Falls. Town officials estimate the mill rate will increase by roughly 2 mills, 1.1 to pay for school system increases and .8 or .9 for municipal hikes.
Board of Finance Vice Chairman Gerard Smith, surprised by the lack of objections from the 30 people in attendance, sought to make sure everyone understood the impact both budgets would have on their tax obligations.
“I want to be clear that this .8 or .9 mill increase is for the municipal side only,” he said. “I don’t want you to be confused when your bill comes with a 2-mill increase and have you say, ‘That’s not what they said it would be.’”
Heads nodded, and no one protested.
“Even when I laid it out, clear as can be, people were OK with it,” Smith remarked to the board later, after the hearing adjourned. “I was not prepared for the meeting we had tonight.”
Among the major increases in the proposed budget are $114,000 for wastewater treatment plant equipment replacements, $61,000 for town employees’ medical insurance and $49,173 for part-time police wages, which include the additions of three midnight shifts and the cost of a DUI check.
Most officials were, like Smith, expecting to hear demands for further cuts. The board considered making additional rollbacks anyway but decided to present the budget, as it stands, to the town meeting, citing Tuesday’s approbations. If residents do reject the budget, members reasoned, the board will be prepared to make more reductions. But if it makes those cuts now, and residents reject the budget, it won’t know how to reduce costs further.
Republican Selectman Michael Krenesky dissented, arguing the Board of Finance should make every possible reduction up front.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the people of Beacon Falls to have this secret list of cuts that you’ll make only if they reject [the budget],” he said. “I think it sends a bad message.”
But Democratic First Selectman Susan Cable reinforced the board’s logic, calling its proposal a “tight budget” that preserves the town’s public services.
“I think people know we’ve done fair budgets,” Cable said, “and that we’re as conscientious as anyone about our taxes.”
While the prevailing opinion of the evening was that the proposed budget increases are reasonable, residents and officials shared concern that a pattern of future hikes might be unsustainable, unless the town finds a way to bolster its tax base. One suggestion was to hire a full-time economic development coordinator, whose job would be to attract commercial investors to Beacon Falls, thereby relieving the residential tax burden.
Cable said the town plans to apply for a grant to fund such a position.