BERLIN - The Board of Finance Wednesday night voted unanimously to send the $43.8 million education budget and the $45.6 million general government budget to the Town Council unchanged.
Only three residents spoke during the annual public budget hearing held the previous night in the high school auditorium.
The hearing drew less than 20 attendees, not counting town and school officials. Last year’s hearing featured over 20 speakers and a packed auditorium.
The council has until April 5 to accept the budgets as they are and send them to referendum on April 24, reduce the budgets and send them to referendum, or reject them.
Rejection would mean a joint meeting of the council and finance board would be held, with a 9-vote “supermajority” vote necessary to send the budgets to referendum.
This is the first year the two budgets will be voted on separately. Voters will also be asked advisory questions asking if the budgets were too high or too low.
Sam Lomaglio, the finance board chairman, said the budget was a “catch-up budget” during his opening statement at the hearing, as last year’s budget only funded approximately $95,000 in capital requests.
“We cannot continue down this path, with a zero-mill campaign promise, or our property values are going to collapse, and someday, in the near future, we’re going to pay a 4- to 5-mill (tax) increase just to fix the current problems,” said Lomaglio. A town investing in itself makes it more appealing to attract businesses, Lomaglio added.
The general government budget increase from this year is 8 percent, with funding for capital projects, and long-term and short-term debt payments for the whole town making up 80 percent of that increase, Finance Director Kevin Delaney said Thursday. The year-to-year increase for strictly general government operating expenses is 1.99 percent, he added.
Included in the capital funding requests, as explained by Acting Town Manager Jack Healy during the public hearing, are replacement snow plow trucks, police cruisers and communications and safety technology at the schools.
The 1.99 percent increase to the school budget, school board President Matt Tencza said, came after the school district cut new requests, eliminated three teachers and found savings in insurance and benefits for employees.
The property tax rate would increase from 31.61 mills to 33.28 mills. On a house valued at $250,000, the tax increase would be $292.
“I do think that a mill-rate increase that’s approaching 2 … I think it’s too high,” said resident Dave Cyr.
Cyr, chairman of the Economic Development Commission, said a higher tax rate would discourage new businesses from locating in Berlin and would be hard on taxpayers.
“It appears to me that this is a responsible budget,” said Fred Jortner, the town’s Democratic registrar of voters, after asking questions about revenue.
“Nobody wants to pay higher taxes,” but everyone wants services from the town, despite less state aid and less than stellar Grand List growth, he added.
Rich Paskiwiecz, the Democratic challenger to Mayor Mark Kaczynski last November, said town schools’ per-pupil spending average is less than the state average.
He also said the town’s debt level, which may be high at the moment because of the recent high school renovation project, is cyclical.
During the finance board’s vote, member Sal Bordonaro said he thought the board had came up with a solid budget, but he was concerned about the ability to complete projects for which funds were allocated.
“I am concerned with the mill-rate increase and my preference would be closer to 1.0,” he said.
He added that IT consolidation, reducing possible finance operation redundancies among the town and schools, measuring the Visiting Nurse Association’s progress, monitoring energy saving projections, school consolidation, and working with the town and legislators to change mandates from the state, were areas of concern going forward.
Before the final vote, Lomaglio asked Healy to look into freezing taxes for seniors to help lessen the impact of tax increases. He said he’d had discussions with officials in other towns on their policies.
Contacted Thursday afternoon, Kaczynski said, “I think the mill rate has to be lower,” considering the high level of debt from the high school project the town has has to pay down over the next couple of years.
He also said the tax rate hurts the town’s ability to attract businesses, as well as taxpayers as a whole.
He said he would like to see a reduction of the budget, to about a 1-mill increase, before sending it to referendum. Delaying or partially completing projects this year should be part of the discussion, he said.
The council is next scheduled to meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Town Council Chambers, 240 Kensington Road.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.