Friday, November 27, 2020

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Deep River Presents $22.2 Million Budget, Down 0.19%, at Public Hearing

On May 5, the Town of Deep River held a virtual public hearing by videoconference on the town’s proposed budgets for fiscal year 2020–’21 (FY 21). At $22,256,938, the FY 21 proposed town and schools budget represents a $35,264 or 0.19 percent reduction from the appropriated budget for fiscal year 2019–’20 (FY 20).

This total includes the repayment of a $4 million line item for a Tax Anticipation Note (TAN), a measure the town is considering if a significant amount of tax revenue is delayed in FY 21. While both town and schools spending is increasing, the overall budget relies on the omission of a previously approved fire truck purchase to offset the increases.

The town plans to spend a total of $12,972,615 on education and related capital items in FY 21, a $536,562 or 4.3 percent increase from FY 20’s $12,436,053.

Of that $12,972,615, the town will pay $5,479,144 for Deep River Elementary School education and capital expenses, an increase of $175,000 or 3.30 percent. It will also pay $7,493,471 for Region 4 educational expenses, which represents an increase of $361,562, or 5.07 percent.

At the May 5 meeting, the budget proposal included a 0.63 mill or 2.1 percent mill rate increase from 29.42 in FY 20 to 30.05 in FY 21. The mill rate was changed to a proposed 29.99 for FY 21, an increase of 0.57 mills or i.9 percent, at a special Board of Finance (BOF) meeting on May 7, according to First Selectman Angus McDonald in a telephone interview with the Courier on May 8.

The special BOF meeting was called to discuss the public input received at the public hearing on May 5. No other changes were made to line items in the proposed budget as a result, according to McDonald.

Summary of Proposed FY 21 Budget

BOF Chair George “Bud” Eckenroth presented the town’s FY 21 budget to members of the public who had joined the remote meeting by videoconference or dialed in by phone on May 5.

With 70 percent of the budget allocated for education expenses, Eckenroth acknowledged the cost of education as a major budget driver. He also touched on the financial difficulties the state is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, indicating that it influenced the town’s budgeting workshop process this year.

In his presentation, Eckenroth highlighted key changes in different line items or areas of the budget’s expenditures. This included a 2.25 percent salary increase for municipal employees, which was negotiated as part of a union contract. Employees are also now paying five percent of their health insurance premiums, as per their contract.

The Town Hall line item, which covers the cost to operate all municipal buildings, decreased by $19,800 or 6.62 percent. This change was a result of a municipal energy efficiency project that helped reduce the price of oil and gas.

The Planning & Zoning line item realized a substantial reduction of 25.58 percent after the retirement of a long-serving zoning enforcement officer, while the Elections line item increased by 18.69 percent due to new outreach and educational responsibilities on behalf of the registrars of voters.

The Employee Benefits line item saw a reduction of 17.63 percent, with most savings being realized after the town moved to an insurance plan administered by the State of Connecticut as opposed to staying with the Region 4 Board of Education’s plan.

The Public Health Nursing Service line item increased by 9.72 percent as a result of an uptick outlined in the Visiting Nurses of the Lower Valley, Inc.’s contract.

Under debt redemption, there was an increase of $30,496 or a 7.89 percent from FY 20 as a result of the borrowing for the municipal energy upgrade.

Major changes under general government capital included $205,000 for the fire department’s new breathing apparatus, upgrades to the equipment at Plattwood Park for $5,400, and a new roof for $10,000 at the elementary school. These costs will be paid for out of the town’s capital fund, but there is the possibility of a federal grant being awarded to cover the new fire department equipment.

The town also budgeted $31,455 for infrastructure improvements that would be covered through the State of Connecticut’s Local Capital Improvement Program.

The remainder of a $100,000 contract for the town’s revaluation of property is also included under general government capital with an amount of $40,000 for FY21.

A debt of $650,000 for a new fire truck that was budgeted and approved in FY 20 and which was to be paid for over a five-year period, was also omitted from the capital area of the budget.

“As we became aware of the incremental costs from the school, its magnitude, we began to look at every cost the town has to try to reduce it [the budget] in any way we could,” said Eckenroth

The omission of the debt repayment for the firetruck, for which each household would have had to pay approximately $65 a year, was an effort to “minimize what we were going to ask citizens for,” he added.

Toward the end of his presentation, Eckenroth commented on how expected revenues would not cover expenditures. He discussed using a combination of raising the mill rate and drawing on the general fund surplus to cover the difference.

Public Comment

Nearly 100 members of the public attended the public hearing to comment and ask questions on Deep River’s proposed FY 21 budget.

Although questions and comments spanned various topics related to different areas and line items of the budget, numerous residents expressed displeasure and concern regarding the removal of the cost for a new fire truck. The fire truck had been approved by residents in the FY 20 budgeting process.

Rick Daniels asked why the total purchase price of the truck, $650,000, was listed in the budget instead of the cost to finance the purchase over a five-year period.

“The unappropriated general fund seems to be significant enough to be able to include the annual payment,” he said.

Robert Lenois asked several questions about the fire truck as it relates to public safety, insurance, and volunteer safety.

“Was there any research done into common best practice for replacement of fire apparatus?” he said. “Do you have any current number for the cost of repairs or data on how often these rigs are broken down?

A “zero increase is nice, but it is unrealistic to think a town can run with zero investment to the future,” he continued. “Is it not? Is there a plan for putting fire trucks in capital replacement?”

In his response, Eckenroth noted that these questions were discussed in great length by the board.

“We felt that we had an obligation to minimize the tax increase we are passing through,” said Eckenroth. “It is not a forgotten obligation. It was approved by the town. Once there is certainty on where the economic fallout of this condition [COVID-19] is, we’ll revisit the firetruck.”

First Selectman Angus McDonald followed up on Eckenroth’s comments, saying the fire truck’s omission was done to keep an affordable mill rate for all taxpayers and that the town balances affordability with the need to invest in its infrastructure.

Later, town resident Virginia Pyne commented that “the cost of the firetruck will only increase. It’s irresponsible to put it off. Our safety is well worth an increase in mill rate.”

Carol Flaim voiced support for the Volunteer Fire Department and its request for a new apparatus.

“I trust this has been thoroughly considered. Investing in our town’s volunteer fire department is an investment in our future. If not now, when?” Flaim asked.

“The safety of our firefighters and residents should be paramount. Please reconsider your support for a new fire truck in next year’s budget,” Carol Hanover said.

After numerous public comments in support of financing a new fire truck, Deep River Fire Chief Timothy Lee spoke on the age of the truck, which is 37 years old and exceeding its recommended life expectancy.

“There is some misinformation out there on the equipment, especially the one being replaced now that it’s something that the fire department is just wanting to do,” said Lee. “That is far from the truth. This piece of equipment needs to be replaced and we’ve got two more right behind [it] that should be getting replaced at the same time right now.”

Lee pointed to the objectives of the five-year capital plan, which have not been met in the last several years.

“This is a request, a plea from the Fire Department to the Board of Finance to reconsider this and keep this payment, not the $650,000, however they want to do it, but the payment, over the course of five years for that piece of equipment, put that back in,” said Lee.

Budget Process

As a result of Governor Ned Lamont’s executive orders, the Deep River Board of Selectmen will grant the Board of Finance authorization to adopt a budget for FY 21. The vote by the Board of Finance on the budget will be held remotely on Monday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. Any questions or comments on the budget can be emailed to the Board at BOF@deepriverct.us.


Elizabeth Reinhart covers news for Chester, Deep River, and Essex for Zip06. Email Elizabeth at e.reinhart@shorepublishing.com.

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