The Day – Preston finance board cuts town, school budget increases

Preston — The Board of Finance wrestled with budget cuts large and small during a marathon four-hour video conference meeting Wednesday.

The board voted 4-2 to cut $363,000 from the requested $577,319 increase in the 2020-21 school budget, leaving the new proposed school budget at $12,241,318, a 1.78% increase over this year’s budget. The school board’s initial request called for a 4.8% spending increase.

Following a lengthy review of the proposed town government budget, the board cut slightly more than the requested $59,442 increase to a new total of $3,858 605, just $35 below this year’s total.

The adjusted proposed budgets will be presented to residents at a call-in teleconference budget public hearing at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, May 28. The teleconference town meeting on the budgets is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 11. Instructions on how to call into the meetings will be included in the legal notice announcing the public hearing and meeting and will be posted on the town’s website

The finance board rejected suggestions to cut the proposed 2% employee raises and employees’ contributions to health insurance plans, instead making a series of small cuts to various line items.

The biggest cut, proposed by board member Andy Depta, was a $40,000 cut to chip-sealing of roads. Depta said he would prefer the town shift to more long-term repaving of deteriorated roads.

Board Vice Chairman Robert Congdon, long-time former first selectmen said he would agree to a proposed $40,000 cut if the board first agreed to encumber $84,000 in this year’s budget for chip-sealing to be done this summer. The board unanimously approved both proposals.

During public comment at the start of the meeting, several residents offered varying comments, from full support of the initial school budget increase to calls for no increase to the school budget.

At previous recent meetings, Board of Finance members objected to a school board’s decision in April to transfer a savings of $160,000 from special education costs to the renovations to the Preston Plains Middle School science labs after bids came in well over the project budget.

The school board has the authority to make the transfer within its budget, but finance board members said the school board should have informed the finance board first.

Board of Finance Chairman John Moulson said the science lab issue was mentioned only in passing during the school budget discussion late Wednesday night. The main concern centered on the COVID-19 impact on tax revenue, with taxpayers out of work, businesses closed temporarily.

“I’m disappointed,” Nugent said Thursday of the school budget cut. “I understand the current environment. Those of us looking at it from an education standpoint understand it’s going to be more costly to implement a coronavirus education and it is going to be a real challenge.”

Even after the $160,000 transfer to the science lab project, the school budget is projecting a $140,000 surplus by the end of this year, Superintendent Roy Seitsinger told the finance board Wednesday. He said the budget is still in flux and that number could change.

The Board of Finance Wednesday voted to decrease projected town revenues by $120,000 to reflect a potential drop in tax collections. Town officials already have deferred property tax payments for 90 days through September per an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont.

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