Republicans take a stance to get Selectman Budget under control.

John McKenna

Apr 29, 2022

FINANCE BOARD TRIMS TOWN BUDGET PLAN

A proposed Litchfield town budget for 2022-23 is ready for the voters.

The Board of Finance on Thursday put the finishing touch on the $32,300,014 proposal voters will consider during a town meeting May 12 at 7 p.m. at Litchfield Intermediate School.

If the spending plan is approved, the tax rate would drop from 27.6 mills to 26.8 mills, or eight-tenths of 1 mill. It would be the third consecutive tax-rate decrease.

“I would bet lunch that you can’t find another town in the state that can say they have done that,” finance board member James Stedronsky said of the trend during the public hearing at the intermediate school. “I hope everyone recognizes the good job the town has done over the past three years.”

The proposed budget shows an increase of $281,635, or .8 percent, over the current budget of $32,018,379.

Following the public hearing, the finance board met and lowered an initial budget proposal of $32,500,014 by $200,000, with all the money coming from the proposed Board of Selectmen budget of $8,851,129. Under the first spending plan, the tax rate would have dropped by six-tenths of 1 mill.

Selectmen are left with a proposed budget of $8,651,129, an increase of $208,554, or 2.5 percent. The $200,000 in cuts came in the areas of municipal waste removal, animal control, ash tree removal and the assessor’s office. All of the reductions were recommended by the selectmen, who had already taken steps to mitigate the effect of cuts to those areas of the proposed budget.

The finance board went one step further and took $45,000 out of the public works department’s budget. Public comments during the hearing helped the board made its decision to reduce the proposed selectmen’s budget.

An impressive increase in the 2021 grand list allows the finance board to lower the tax rate by eight-tenths of 1 mill. The grand list grew by $40 million, an amount large enough to more than offset the proposed budget’s increase.

First Selectman Denise Raap presented the proposed selectmen’s budget and used the opportunity to tout the accomplishments of her administration, particularly in the areas of the park and recreation and social services departments, and in recycling. Under questioning from residents, Raap also defended plans to budget for an assistant public works director/project manager, a full-time fire marshal, an assistant to the park and recreation director, and a part-time worker at the recycling center, which Raap said is turning a profit for the first time in a decade.

Raap also went back and forth with finance board member Patty Dauten and Republican Town Committee Chairman Stephan Krucker over the number of employees that would be on the selectmen’s payroll if the proposed budget is approved. Dauten and Krucker both insisted the number would increase by four employees, a number Raap disputed.

“When the head count goes up, we’re going to have to deal with the cost of that increase year after year,” Krucker said.

The proposed public works hire would replace a mechanic’s position that is not being filled, Raap said. Compensation for the new position is similar to what the mechanic was earning, so the hiring would be a wash. The only new position would be the $16,000 job at the recycling center. The park and recreation assistant job is not a new position, but the $23,000 being budgeted for it is new funding.

There was much discussion of how higher motor vehicle values would effect taxes, even with a decrease in the tax rate. Krucker pointed to taxpayers who own more than one vehicle, saying they face the prospect of paying more in taxes even with a decrease in the tax rate. Motor vehicle values are up by $28 million under the new grand list.

Taxpayers with homes assessed at under $250,000 and under and owning two of three motor vehicles are not going to benefit from the reduction in the tax rate, according to Tax Collector Helen Bunnell. They’ll pay more in taxes, she said.

“We are using the $28 million (increase in motor vehicle values) to justify an increase in spending,” Bunnell said.

John Bongiorno, Krucker’s predecessor as RTC chairman, expressed concern about the four employee positions that Raap defended and the long-term effect they will have on the town budget.

“Motor vehicle values are not going to stay where they are, so that revenue you are using is going to go away and when it does, you will have to raise taxes,” Bongiorno said. “I’m very concerned about adding positions, because once you do they’re there forever.”

Expect help next year, Raap and Selectman Jeffrey Zullo said, from the tax revenue that is expected to be generated by the redevelopment projects involving the former Litchfield courthouse and the former Rose Haven nursing home, as well as from a solar farm that will straddle the Litchfield-Torrington line.

“John Bongiorno made a good point, but I think we’ll have substantial grand list growth with the solar farm being a $40 million investment and the courthouse and Rose Haven being a (combined) $16 million to $18 million investment,” Zullo said.

The proposed budget includes $19,277,500 for the Board of Education. That spending plan was presented by Superintendent of Schools Christopher Leone and represents no increase in the assessment on taxpayers for the third straight year.

“I’m very proud because the local contribution is flat for the third year and that we have a budget that would still move us forward,” Leone said of the amount taxpayers would be assessed to cover the proposed budget. Most area school districts, he said, are seeking budget increases of between 2 and 5 percent.

Total school spending next year would be $19.8 million, with the difference between that number and the $19,277,500 being fully covered by revenue from the state and other sources.

Leone cautioned, however, that 2022-23 is likely to be the last year where a flat assessment on taxpayers is possible.

The rest of the proposed budget includes $4,306,385 for debt and $65,000 for capital.