News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 31, 2013
Stonington budget nearing completion
Taxes appear to be holding steady

by Alice Wilkinson

In what seemed like a repeat of last week, the Stonington selectmen again spent their January 28 meeting discussing the budget.

Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said the work on the budget will probably be completed and ready for the selectmen to sign next week. The goal is to have the budget, along with the warrant articles, the auditor’s report and all other reports done by February 10. After that they go to the printer, and then come back to the town for people to study before Town Meeting, this year on Monday, March 4.

As the selectmen worked their way through the budget, adding a little here, taking away a little there, nothing elicited a lot of comment.

There was good news right at the beginning—a debt service loan on the Bayview Street project had been paid off, but the $4,115 showed up in the budget, accidentally. Everyone crossed it out and the amount was deducted.

Members of the clam committee came to the meeting to tell the selectmen that their request from the town will be $13,500. If they get that from both towns, the $27,000 still will not cover their expenses. Committee member John Robbins said they would have to work to make that up. Last year, the committee sold T-shirts; they are still available at the town office.

Robert Ray, chairman of the committee, said, “We did make some decisions…we discussed many solutions. We’re here to see how much money we can get to cover Raylene’s [Raylene Pert, shellfish warden] cost…the committee unanimously decided no increase in commercial out-of-town licenses because the clam flats are so heavily worked…out-of-town diggers don’t sell here. The money goes off-Island with them. We’re here to represent Raylene…she’s a great warden.”

Robbins added that to make up the amount with out-of-town commercial licenses they would have to sell 45, and “if 45 out-of-town commercial diggers came, you’d have no clams left.”

Ray asserts that the $400 cost of an on-Island commercial clam license is the highest in the state. The off-Island licenses are $600, and their number is limited to one for every 10 local licenses sold.

The selectmen decided that the warrant article for the clam committee will not embed the amount in the article, so it can be decided by the voters. If the amount is embedded in the article, which would read something like “To see if the town will raise or appropriate $13,500 for the clam committee” it would be voted either up or down. If, however, the article reads: “To see how much the town will raise or appropriate for the clam committee” the amount is not in the article itself. It can be decided by voters, who can raise or lower the amount. Last year the amount was increased at town meeting.

The selectmen have been after the clam committee to raise the number of out-of-town licenses for six months.

After the clam committee left, the selectmen continued to work their way through the budget.

Health insurance costs are up, but so are employees’ wages. Chris Betts pointed out that the raises, which range from 25 cents to $1 an hour, won’t cover the increased cost of health coverage for employees. That budget line is set at $44,500, up from last year’s $32,795.

The real cost depends on the severity of the winter and the cost of fuel, but the line for Town Office heat is up from a budgeted $5,000 in 2012 to $7,500 or $8,000 for 2012. The $5,000 amount budgeted last year did not cover the cost of heat, which actually came to $7,433.

Because of a lack of applicants the town has not hired an animal control officer, so the amount budgeted for that line is down from $13,250 to $10,250. Last year the town spent $4,445 on animal control because for most of the year there was no ACO.

There were some questions about economic development, and whether the town was getting enough for its money. Selectman Evelyn Duncan said, “It’s not a critical field…we could cut back on this.” Currently the line is at $5,000. “How much is the town benefiting from this?” she asked. “We should sit down and decide what exactly do we want and go for that.”

Billings-Pezaris agreed, saying “the need is to have some firm decisions…not a lot coming from that committee.”

The selectmen asked Billings-Pezaris to talk to someone from Child and Family Opportunities [Head Start] to find out why the request, $1,400 is the same as last year’s, now that they are in the elementary school and don’t have a building to maintain. The selectmen emphasized that they are in favor of the program; they just want clarification.

Aware that Harbormaster Steve Johnson expects to retire in three months, the question of who would succeed him, and the skills needed were discussed. The qualifications, ranging from some nautical experience to law enforcement, and now including bookkeeping, to keep track of fuel sales on the pier as well as costs of moorings, had the selectmen consider whether it’s really all one job.

Having a harbormaster on call on weekends was considered. Chairman of the Board of Selectmen George Stevens said, “That’s what the Coast Guard is for.”

Selectman Evelyn Duncan expressed concern about the way the finances of the harbor and fish pier are intertwined; she said that the harbor took up perhaps 20 percent of the harbormaster’s time, but was charged for as much as 50 percent. The fuel sales on the pier also caused concern—she said the bookkeeping needed to be cleared up. Sometimes fishermen brought a check for fuel to the town office; sometimes it was slipped under the door of the harbormaster’s office; sometimes it was recorded twice; sometimes it wasn’t recorded.

Unable to come to any conclusion without advice from the Harbor Committee, the selectmen considered having Duncan go to the committee to explain the problems, or having the committee come to a selectmen’s meeting. With advice from Selectman Richard Larrabee, the latter was decided upon.

The total budget is up $118,123 from last year’s $1,358,084 to $1,476,207. That does not include the school budget, which last year brought the town’s total budget to $3,203,859.

Billings-Pezaris said taxes should remain the same unless the school and the county costs “go way up.”

Right at the end of the meeting Duncan said she had seen Water Company Superintendent Roger Stone turning on the pumps for the wells, which are located adjacent to her property. When she asked why, he said the standpipe is down to 50 percent. She added it was sudden, and would like to know what’s going on. In the past there have been huge leaks which took a long time to discover.

There is a water company meeting next week. The selectmen, who are officers of the water company, plan to discuss the issue with Stone.