Sprague town, school budgets scrutinized at public hearing
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Sprague - posted Tue., Apr. 23, 2013
Tempers flared over road repairs and ambulance replacement at Sprague’s budget hearing April 18, as townspeople met with the Board of Finance to scrutinize the $8,464,022 spending plan for fiscal 2013-14. Finance Board Chairman Claude Pellegrino said that the mil rate increase to 30 mils, 3.25 mils higher than last year, actually represents no tax increase due to the town’s recent revaluation. “The average resident will see a slightly lower check [to write] than you wrote last year,” he said. A mil represents the amount of tax on $1,000 of assessed property.
The town government portion of the budget stands at $2,508,226. The Board of Education’s budget bottom line is $5,978,753. Between the two spending plans, the town would realize a $22,957 shortfall.
First Selectman Cathy Osten told the crowd that staffing reductions in maintenance personnel were a response to requests from many townspeople that the town and school system share resources. She said that the facilities manager position would be cut and that one full-time maintenance position would be made part-time. In addition, the town and school would share 60-40 in purchasing and contracted services, reducing the budget line items on both sides, she said.
Residents of Pautipaug Hill Road were irate that their street was not scheduled for maintenance even though, they said, other roads with more recent repair records were slated for work again next year. Osten said that the repair bill on just the drainage for one section of that road was $750,000. If the drainage were not addressed first, subsequent road work would be in vain, she said.
“It just turned out we could not afford the project on Pautipaug Hill Road,” she said. “Everybody in town pays taxes. Everybody in town would like their road done.” She said that she was looking into having some of the town’s worst roads fixed through hazardous mitigation grant funds.
But several residents urged the finance board to redirect town road repair funds to Pautipaug, which they said was impassible in one lane and a safety hazard. “Do it a piece at a time. Take [the money] from somewhere else,” said Kevin Generous. “It’s a prioritization issue, not a tax issue.”
Les Shull of the Baltic Fire Co. #1 brought up a proposal to allocate $200,000 for a new ambulance, a topic which has been raised in previous budget years. He said that the existing 2000 model is well beyond its projected 10-year service life.
Kord Jablonski responded that he and other board members were willing to consider funding a replacement, but wanted information on the ambulance company’s finances that the company refused to provide. He said that the town could obtain a new, “never-been-bled-in” model for $125,000, rather than this year’s model, but was unwilling to impose a tax increase on residents if financial records were not forthcoming.
Townspeople and town officials also clashed over whether the town should conduct a referendum to vote on the budget proposal. Generous said that the town has held referenda since 2008, but that spending changes can’t be made by voters at a referendum. “The only way the people of the town can amend the budget is at town meeting, not at referendum,’ he said. “The town’s people are the legislature. I think we are overdue.” Since the number of voters at referenda has been declining, he said, “the way to have a healthy community is to get [residents] engaged in the process.”
But Pellegrino pointed out that residents can only vote to lower, not raise, parts of the budget at town meeting.
At press time, the finance board had not yet set a date and time for the annual town meeting, typically held in early May. They were expected to do so at their April 25 meeting, at which they also planned to discuss the townspeople’s input from the public hearing and possibly adjust the budget accordingly.