News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 24, 2019
Stonington Selectmen close in on 2019 budget

by Rich Hewitt

Selectmen made final adjustments to the draft 2019 town budget on January 21 but they still have work to do.

The draft budget totals $1,678,454, which would be an increase of $26,315 or a little more than 1.5 percent above the 2018 budget. That figure provides funding for all town departments and third-party requests, but Town Manager Kathleen Billings said the selectmen still have decisions to make about how much surplus to use and how much to allocate for or from reserve accounts.

Billings noted long-term projects for which the town has created reserve accounts, such as dredging, fire station, and the ball field, but selectmen also have immediate issues that need to be funded, including a roof on the Island Community Center building and a salt/sand shed. Selectmen spent much of Monday’s meeting discussing those projects and will wait for more information before making a decision.

The sole bid on the salt/sand shed came in at about $708,000, more than a quarter of a million dollars more than anticipated, and selectmen quickly looked for alternatives.

Billings said she and engineer Andrew McCullough spent time reviewing the bid package to see if there were ways to bring down the costs on the steel building, but to no avail.

One alternative that drew interest was a steel frame building with a fabric covering, similar to buildings used for athletics. Preliminary estimates for the building itself ran to about $100,000 and Billings estimated an additional $100,000-$120,000 in groundwork. Selectman John Robbins speculated that additional costs including lighting could push the cost as high as $400,000, still within the board’s price tag. Although interested, the selectmen wanted more information including endorsements from towns that have installed this type of building.

The state DEP has pressured towns to get their winter salt stores under cover in order to prevent salt leaching into the ground and potentially infiltrating wells, which can be difficult and expensive to correct. Selectman John Steed suggested that it might be better to see if there is a problem before spending a lot of money on the building. He suggested hiring a hydrogeologist to determine where water flows in the ground from the existing salt pile.

Meanwhile, re-shingling the roof of the ICC building is another looming project that will affect the budget or the surplus accounts. Whatever the cost, the board has to have a dollar figure to present to voters at town meeting and that raised concerns for Selectman Evelyn Duncan.

“If that money goes in the budget,” she said, “that’s going to change that [budget] figure and taxes will go up. If you take it from surplus, then we’re running down the surplus.”

If the town’s surplus runs too low or if the price for the roof project comes in higher than the amount voters approve, the town could have to borrow funds to complete the work. If the town has to borrow, Duncan said, she would support an increase in the rent charged to ICC to cover that additional cost. Brewer favored increasing the rent no matter where the funds come from, although she said she wants the town to give the ICC the building once the roof project was completed. Selectman John Steed said he thought that—with a brand new roof on it—the ICC board would accept the building. Robbins disagreed. He noted that ICC officials earlier this month indicated that they needed to “get their ducks in a row,” before they could take over ownership.

Billings said she will try to have a firm figure for the next selectmen’s meeting.

The budget itself doesn’t include any new town programs. According to Billings, the selectmen proposed increases in the economic development account—up $2,500—to cover increased activity and projects. There is also an $8,000 increase in the town office computer account, funds that will go toward upgrades to the towns accounting and taxation program. Wages increase in the draft budget in an effort to keep town positions competitive, Billings said. Those increases are offset by decreases in insurance and workers comp costs.

The selectmen also decreased the account for additional Sheriff’s Office patrols in town. Selectmen expressed concerns over the effectiveness of the extra patrols and Selectman Travis Fifield noted that the cost for those patrols increases each year. He suggested that the costs were nearing the point where it might be more cost effective for the town to have its own police officer. The selectmen debated how best to present the issue to voters at town meeting and decided to budget for two days of patrol rather than three. That move will cut the cost from $74,880 to $50,000. They will present the warrant question so that voters can increase that amount if they choose.

Selectmen plan to review reserve accounts and surplus at their next meeting and likely will adopt the budget at that time.