Last Monday evening, April 20, some 15 residents turned out to hear the Old Lyme Board of Finance present their proposed town budget for the 2015-16 financial year. Board of Finance Chairman Andrew Russell opened by explaining that the budget process had begun back in December and continued through to the present with meetings between members of the board and department heads, committee chairs, commission heads, the board of selectmen and representatives from a variety of non-profits.
He summarized the status of the proposed budget noting that in total the budget of $34,756,641 shows an increase of 3.67 percent over the previous year, but that the categories within the budget — although all show an increase — by no means show consistency in terms of the size of their increases. For example, the Capital Outlay request is up 44.01 percent while the Total General Government has only increased by 6.84 percent.
Russell then proceeded to highlight the areas of significant change across all the various sectors of the budget.
With regard to the Parks and Recreation budget, he noted that the board was requesting a 0.8 percent reduction over the previous year, “due to the installation of the kiosks at Sound View.” This, in turn, had caused the number of seasonal town employees for the Sound View area to be reduced enabling some $15,000 in savings to be gained by the Town.
One area where Russell said he was not entirely confident of the current budget numbers was the Public Safety segment of the budget. The board had requested an increase of $11,600 to cover the State Trooper’s contract at the 80 percent level rather than the current 70 percent, as required by the state. Russell pointed out, however, that there are indications, “Hartford wants the town to fund 100 percent of the trooper’s salary,” which would require a further increase in the budget.
Under the category of Social Services and Senior Citizens, the board had included an additional $3,000 for Lymes’ Youth Service Bureau. This was due to a possible reduction in state aid since, Russell noted , “All youth service bureaus have lost funding from the state.”
Capital Project Funds showed a major increase of 126.3 percent, which incorporated a single line item of $400,000 for road improvement. Russell justified this dramatic increase noting, “We’re finding out we’ve been underfunding our roads,” adding in a later discussion, “We’re probably going to have to be more aggressive with our roads in the immediate future.”
The Private Beach Associations category showed a decrease of almost $30,000 ($29,600) primarily due to implementation of the new calculation recently drawn up by a Town Committee and agreed by the board of selectmen regarding funding for the Private Beach Associations by the Town. The proposed reduced funding total paid by the town to the Private Beach Associations is $71,700.
A decrease of 1.6 percent ($5,844) is reflected in Debt Service ($357,719) due to the fall in interest as the Town repays the principal on the loan for the Town Hall renovations.
Russell noted that the budget called for a total of $600,000 to be taken from the town’s surplus to fund removal of oil tanks ($200,000) and $400,000 to fund the additional funds needed for the boathouse on top of the $454,000 awarded under a Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) state grant.
Other significant expenses in the budget are $160,000 for a new dump truck with plow, $100,000 for the engineering segment of the Mile Creek Rd. bridge (final costs are unknown at this stage but a STEAP grant application is being prepared), $85,000 for a fire/police boat, $35,000 for the Emergency Management Phase 2 Communications Project, $25,000 for the Cross Lane firehouse boiler, $20,000 for weed eradication at Rogers Lake, $17,000 for the Lymes’ Senior Center roof and carpet, and $12,000 for repairs to the Cross Lane tennis courts.
An additional $125,000 was originally in the Public Works operating budget but has since been transferred to the capital budget.
Russell noted the new mill rate required to support this budget would be 20.62 reflecting an increase of 4.88 percent. He pointed out that if the $600,000 were not taken from the budget surplus, then the resultant mill rate would be 21.00 reflecting a 6.8 percent increase.
Russell gave three examples of the projected cost to homeowners showing that owners of a house valued at $347,200 would pay $5,011 in taxes at the new mill rate as opposed to $4,777 at the current rate. A property valued at $540,200 would incur $7,796 in taxes compared to a current amount of $7,433, while a $1.25 million home would be levied $18,104 in contrast the current amount of $17,261.
When the floor was opened for public comment, Steve Cinami questioned Russell about the transfer of monies from the town’s surplus account to fund projects, asking, “What is a number that the town feels is a responsible number [to retain in the surplus account]?” Russell responded that the number used to be 7 or 8 percent but that the surplus account currently stands at around 20 percent. Cinami quizzed Russell as to why the excess should not be returned to taxpayers, suggesting, “Why not get it down to 12 percent and fund new projects from taxes?”
Russell noted in response that the Town had, “Put $1.2 million back into the surplus,” and also that the Town needs $25,000 to $30,000 for each blizzard. He added that he personally would like to see the surplus at around 15 percent while First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder mentioned, “The auditors want 12 to 15 percent.” Russell used the Mile Creek bridge as an a example of something that contributed to the need to keep a robust surplus. He pointed out that the Town wanted to fix the bridge, but at the time of writing the budget, it was unclear whether it, “… would get any money from Hartford.”
Former First Selectman Timothy Griswold asked why the approximately $400,000 being used from the surplus to fund the new boathouse in Hains Park did not appear in the budget. Russell agreed in principle that Griswold was correct, noting to rippled laughter that the purpose of a hearing such as the one being held was to identify any omissions of this type before the final budget was submitted.
Russell closed the meeting by reminding the audience that, assuming the Region 18 budget vote passes successfully on May 6, the vote on the town budget will be held on Monday, May 18, in a town meeting.