Tales of two budget plans stir hearing

LITCHFIELD – As much as an almost-level-funded town budget can assuage cash-strapped taxpayers, next year’s proposed school budget is heading in the other direction.

That’s the message the School Board and Budget Committee heard after unveiling the school and municipal spending plans at a budget hearing at Campbell High School on Thursday night.

The proposed school district operating budget of $19.5 million is up $757,000 from this year’s budget, an increase of 3.8 percent. That would add 56 cents to the school portion of the tax rate.

About 40 percent of that increase is for full-day kindergarten mandated by the state, according to business administrator Steve Martin. But of the roughly $320,000 set aside for kindergarten, about $303,000 will be paid for by the state.

Other increases include $136,000 for non-union salary and benefits increases and $109,000 for the state retirement system.

But that doesn’t include a new teachers contract. The three-year tentative agreement would give teachers 2.5 percent cost-of-living raises each year, plus step increases, which are about 3 percent each, according to School Board Chairman Steve Miller.

The contract would cost an extra $457,623 in the first year and then $374,373 and $379,805 in each of the next two years, Miller said.

That contract, plus $50,000 for the special education capital reserve fund, would add another 52 cents to the school portion of the tax rate.

The increases from the operating budget and warrant articles would add an estimated $350 to the typical tax bill, Budget Committee Chairman Brent Lemire said.

Residents who spoke at the hearing had plenty of questions for the Budget Committee and School Board as well as warnings that annual tax increases can’t be continued forever.

“Where does it end? If I managed my civilian business like that, I’d be fired,” said Jason Guerrette. “Only in government do you have an ever-increasing spending curve.”

The town’s operating budget is a relative bright spot. The $4.2 million proposed budget is actually about $138,000 less than last year.

The cutbacks include decreases to the contingency budget, from $64,000 to $35,000; code enforcement, from $101,000 to about $85,000; and road maintenance, down from $486,000 to about $270,000.

The Board of Selectmen is also proposing a $1 million road bond to fix culverts on Cranberry Lane, Page Road and Albuquerque Avenue and to repair about a mile of Albuquerque Avenue near Page Road.

About $800,000 of that project, which would take about two years and could close some of those roads for a period of time, would be borrowed. The rest of the money, $200,000, would come from the state Highway Block Grant.

There will also be a warrant article asking to change to a town manager form of government. Selectmen’s Chairman Frank Byron said the manager would provide leadership and daily decision-making ability that the town desperately needs.

“The town government has become extremely large and complex and is no longer the small town that can be run by a Board of Selectmen,” Byron said.

The manager would make about $85,000 a year, plus benefits, according to the article.

With the other warrant articles, including $253,000 for drainage improvements at Winter Circle, the town portion of the tax rate would increase 3 cents, or about $10.50 on the average tax bill, Lemire said.