News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 17, 2013
State budget woes affect Stonington town planning

by Alice Wilkinson

With the amount of money Stonington can expect from the state still not clear, the work the selectmen did on the town budget on January 14 is not exactly set in stone.

Even before the official start of the meeting, the selectmen in the room discussed the effect the state budget could have on the town. One of the ideas being floated on the state level, is to take commercial excise tax from the towns. In Stonington this amounts to roughly $70,000 or 35 percent of the $200,000 it collects from all excise taxes. The question of how the selectmen will figure the budget without knowing what, if anything, Stonington will get from the state hung in the air as the meeting started.

Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said, “I think we have to go ahead with our budget, but hold back our spending, don’t buy anything.”

Selectman Evelyn Duncan added, “There’s nothing to cut. What will go by the wayside is the reserve—it means that when we go to do something with our infrastructure we’ll have to borrow.”

“We don’t have to spend 100 percent of what we raised,” added Selectman Chris Betts, but that was no solace to Duncan.

“It’s not as if we have a whole bunch of stuff we’re not going to spend,” she replied. “Maybe we can cut $30,000.” (The town budget is around $1,000,000.)

Before they got down to specifics on the 2013 budget, Duncan brought up the issue of the revenue from fuel sales on the pier. She said no one has actually sat down and figured out whether the 10 cents a gallon [over wholesale] that the pier charges for fuel is enough, and that the software used to track fuel sales is not right for the job and should be replaced. The gross income from fuel sales is about $30,000.

As the winter roads lines in the budget came up for discussion, Billings-Pezaris said that Downeast Supervac could vacuum the salt and sand left after winter in two days for $2,400, including taking the stuff away and dumping it, which would be less than it would cost if the town crew did it, since it would take three days of town labor, as well as wear on town equipment. The amount allotted for winter roads in the 2012 budget was $186,400, of which only$165,114 was spent, because of a mild winter. So far this winter, there is still salt and sand left, so the selectmen took a little out of the allotment for salt and sand, and moved it to road equipment for the 2013 budget.

The line after the winter roads costs in the budget is Bayview Street. Last year work was done to prevent the road from eroding into the sea. Billings-Pezaris said the road appears to be holding, and the selectmen decided to change the name of the allocation to seawall so the money could be used for similar work elsewhere. A warrant article is needed to change the name of the account, which currently has $9,000 in it.

That was typical of what the work was like on Monday night. Leave the money for the gym building the same; increase the road equipment line. Take $2,000 from the school building line since it is fully rented and most of the expensive work has been done.

Some costs are fixed; the selectmen have no choice. Street lights and fire hydrants are two costs that are not in their control. When it came to the shellfish line, the selectmen had a lot to say. No written request has come in from the clam committee, but the $10,000 in the line, according to Duncan and Selectman Donna Brewer, who is the selectmen’s representative on the clam committee, is not enough; they need $13,500.

The money the committee has goes to pay the clam warden, and comes out of license fees. In the past the fees have been just enough to cover the costs, but this year, partly due to the abundance of lobsters and the move from clamming to lobstering by some clam diggers, fees are down.

The selectmen have suggested that the clam committee open the flats to more commercial diggers from off Island, since their licenses, at $600, bring in more revenue than the local licenses, which are $400. Currently one out-of-town license is sold for every ten local licenses. That ratio is a state minimum.

Selectman Richard Larrabee added that if the number of days lobstermen can work [a current proposal from the state] is limited because of a glut “there will be more people clamming.”

They put off making a final decision on the shellfish line, but Brewer, Duncan and Billings-Pezaris all said it needs to be $13,500.

The selectmen will continue working on the budget at their next meeting, Monday, January 21, at 6 p.m.