News Feature

Stonington
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 28, 2019
Police patrol, reserve accounts on tap for town meeting

by Rich Hewitt

Voters at the annual town meeting will decide whether to cut the amount the town budgets for extra policing during the year.

Town meeting will convene at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 9, in the second floor meeting room at the town hall. Voting for municipal officers will run from 7:30 a.m. until noon that day, also upstairs at the town hall.

The proposed municipal budget includes just $45,440 for additional patrols by Hancock County sheriff’s deputies, down from the $73,632 that was budgeted last year. The lower amount reflects the selectmen’s calculations for what it will cost for two patrol shifts each week instead of the three shifts that the sheriff’s department currently provides under a yearly contract with the town. Those extra shifts are in addition to the regular patrols the department provides throughout the county.

Responding to concerns raised by some residents about the effectiveness of the sheriff’s patrols, and adding their own concerns, selectmen opted to drop the amount and have only two extra shifts per week. There is a hitch, however. In a meeting with selectmen last month, Sheriff Scott Kane said he won’t offer a contract for just two shifts per week, citing the high cost of training and hiring extra officers to fill those shifts. Without a three-day contract, Kane said he could not guarantee regular extra patrols in town, because those shifts would be offered to deputies in addition to their regular shifts and they would decide whether to sign up for them or not. The same would be true for the special events such as the Fourth of July, the boat races and Fishermen’s Day for which the sheriff’s department provides coverage.

In a memo to voters, Town Manager Kathleen Billings said she and the selectmen value the contract with the sheriff’s department, but pointed out that there is a wide difference of opinion in town on the issue of law enforcement.

“Because of the divisiveness of opinion,” Billings wrote, “the selectmen have decided it is best to hear from the voters at our annual town meeting what they would like to do in the future regarding police protection and presence.”

Although they included the lower amount in the budget, the selectmen have made no recommendation in the warrant article which asks voters what amount they will raise and appropriate for law enforcement. They note that $45,440 amount covers two days. The selectmen opted to leave the amount at the lower figure and let the voters decide what they want to spend.

The law enforcement issue will be among the 88 articles on the warrant for the town meeting. In other articles, selectmen also have proposed allocating $365,000 from surplus to fund new and existing reserve accounts. The largest amount—$100,000—would go toward repairs to the roof of the former gym building which now houses the Island Community Center. There’s been much discussion during the past year or so regarding the condition of the building and the future use of it by the ICC. But selectmen noted that they need to maintain the building, regardless of what the ICC does in the future. Although the town had received an estimate of about $62,000 to re-shingle the entire roof, they feared there might be some damage under the old shingles, so they added additional funds to the request to cover any problems.

In a related warrant article, voters will be asked whether they wish to extend the ICC’s lease on the building for an additional two years. The current lease expires this summer.

The selectmen also propose the creation of three new reserve accounts, which, Billings said, anticipates the needs of the town in the future. Allocations for the new accounts would be: Broadband/Internet account, $10,000; a Fire Station reserve account, $75,000; and a Sea Level Rise reserve account, $25,000. The proposed allocations for existing reserve accounts are: Harbor, $50,000; Waterfront Access, $25,000; Colwell Ramp, $35,000; Athletic Field, $15,000; and the Rainy Day account, $30,000.

According to Billings, these reserve accounts are a way for the town to plan for the future.

“Although the requests…are much less than in previous years,” Billings wrote in her memo, “these future planning projects are necessary to keep our town in good shape and prevent sharp tax increases.”

The proposed budget for 2019 is $1,675,569, an increase of just $7,782, less than 1 percent above the 2018 budget. Budget increases include salaries, new town office software, clam enforcement, additional economic development funds and debt service on the new plow truck. Those increases were offset by decreases in various accounts including the cut to law enforcement, decreases in the tipping fee, and at the transfer station and public works departments.