Canterbury budget goes back to drawing board
By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Canterbury - posted Mon., Aug. 19, 2013
It's back to the drawing board for the Canterbury Board of Selectmen and Board of Education. At a Board of Finance meeting on Aug. 14, a motion was made to send the 2013-2014 budget back to those boards for a re-evaluation in order to keep an increase to .3 mil. The sticking point: where cuts can be made to satisfy residents who have voted proposed budgets down three times already.
The impasse revolves around a number of key issues that have put the town in a precarious position. It also calls into question voters' confidence in their elected officials.
Proposed budgets calling for 1.5 mil, 1 mil and .3 mil increases were voted down in three referendums. After the last vote, the Board of Selectmen set a bill rate of .5 mil, infuriating many in the town. That move negated the will of the voters, said Board of Finance member Ray Sulich, Jr. “Our budgets are dictated by the electorate,” he said. “They said, 'No.' That means reducing spending.”
First Selectman Brian Sear said the bill rate was necessary to keep the town running. “We faced a cash flow problem,” he said. “It would have been that or borrow money, with interest, to keep the town running. It was the responsible thing to do for the operation of the town.”
Sear said he set the bill rate at .5 mil based on instinct, feedback from citizens, and concerns of several members of the Board of Finance. “To me, it seemed like the mil rate increase hit bottom and bounced back up,” he said. He said the increase will help restore cuts that were made and put the fund balance in better shape. “It solves a lot of issues the Board of Finance had,” he said.
Cuts to the transfer station operating hours, gym, the senior activity fund and a private senior citizen group were particularly difficult for voters to swallow said Neil Dupont, a former first selectman. But it wasn't just those cuts that had voters fuming. The restoration of benefits to what was once a part-time assessor's position added $33,000 to the budget. And many in town don't understand why Sear, who has maintained his town position after getting elected as a state representative, can justify full-time pay for what they say has become a part-time first selectman's position.
“I know people have issues with employees in town, but they are under contract,” said Finance Chair Robert Droesch. “We can't reduce their hours or pay or benefits without facing a lawsuit. Not only would we lose in arbitration, we'd lose in attorney fees.”
There hasn't been an increase to Canterbury's mil rate in five years. The town's general fund balance has Droesch concerned. “I've never seen it this low,” he said. “It's scary at best.” The number auditors generally like to see is 10 percent of a town's budget. This year, Canterbury's proposed budget would amount to $14.6 million. It's general fund balance is $376. “That's not enough to buy a boiler,” Droesch said. “It's not even close to what we need to make it through the year.”
“The bottom line is we don't have any money,” said Treasurer Cheryl LaFlamme-Miller. “We've used it up.” Cuts coupled with an increase in the mil rate will help level things out, she said.
Adam Fritzsche said a zero increase in the budget didn't seem sustainable. “We're at a critical point,” he said. “Everyone's sacrificed across the board. I don't want to pay more, but it doesn't seem like an angry increase.”
Board Vice Chair Ellen Chalfant agreed. “I think we're playing with fire if we go below that,” she said.
“For some, taxes can never be low enough,” Sear said. “We just can't do it this year. We spent $280,000 on a 50-year school roof.” The roof project on the elementary school was paid out of the fund balance.
The vote to send the budget back to the boards of selectmen and education with a .3 mil increase was tied at 3 to 3. “A tie vote wins,” said Droesch. “The treasurer said it very well. We have used our fund balance in the past five years to offset any increases, and now we're at the point where we don't have a fund balance to do that any longer. We need to replenish it.”
“It still has to get past the taxpayers,” said Dupont.