Easton Budget Process Under a Pandemic

Last year the Easton Courier published an overview of the Easton budget process. The article went into some detail about how the town budget is developed and how the Board of Finance (BOF) works to prepare a budget request to present to the town for its approval. It was the process that the BOF has followed, with little variation, for many years.

The article was published just as the new Courier was launched, on Feb. 29, leap day, and shortly after, things changed. During the first two weeks of March 2020, all department heads, along with their respective boards and commissions, met with the Board of Finance to present and review proposed budgets. These public budget meetings were held in person as usual at the Senior Center.

But while the budget process was continuing as normal, the Coronavirus situation was gaining more attention. On March 10, the governor issued Executive Order 7B announcing the suspension of in-person open meeting requirements and authorizing towns to conduct remote public meetings over video conference and/or conference call. Town organizations were beginning to react.

In his frequent message updates our First Selectman David Bindelglass noted changes to town government operations and the town’s public facilities. On March 12 it was announced that schools were closing, and the Senior Center and library cancelled programs. On March 16, all public meetings were postponed. On March 17, Town Hall was closed to the public with only a skeleton staff maintaining town operations.

The next step in the normal budget process was to have the Board of Finance conduct a Public Hearing on the budget. This hearing was scheduled to be held in the Samuel Staples Elementary School cafetorium on March 23. It is a time for the public to provide the board their opinion of the budget. But the governor’s limit on public gathering size meant that this meeting would not be possible.

What Changed in 2020

The Board of Finance decided to reconsider its usual practice and determine alternate ways to; (1) get budget information to the public without a public hearing; (2) continue meeting with selected departments; (3) alert the town to the Board’s final budget decisions without a Town Meeting and, finally; (4) conduct a Referendum on the budget.

On April 2 the BOF convened its first “ZOOM” meeting to discuss those issues. BOF Chairman Matt Gachi noted that the budget presentation, which would normally be made at the public hearing, was instead posted as a link on the town website, and he encouraged others to add it to other online groups with Easton members. In addition, the link was emailed to all residents registered for e-mail alerts from the town.

The post on the town website asked readers to submit comments via e-mail to BOF@Eastonct.gov by April 30. The Board planned to wait until after the April 30 deadline before making any final budget decisions.

On May 1, Governor Lamont issued Executive Order 7HH prohibiting towns from conducting budget referendums. It ordered the budget-making authority of a town, in Easton’s case, the BOF, to adopt a budget and set a mill rate and suspended any requirement for a vote.

At the Board’s May 5 regular meeting Chairman Gachi made a presentation, Easton BOF Data Overview, containing data on the serious impact of COVID-19 restrictions to the U.S. and Connecticut economy. Yet, it also noted the governor’s plan to start a phased reopening of the Connecticut economy beginning May 20, 2020. 

At its regular June 2 meeting the Board adopted a budget of $44,639,809. Assuming a reduced tax collection rate of 98.5% and allocating $3,125,000 of unassigned funds to the budget, the board set a mill rate of 31.00, a reduction of 1.05%.

What is Different This Year

The plan to start reopening the Connecticut economy in May of last year was put off as cases spiked. As this year’s budget season is starting, the town is under many of the same restrictions it encountered last year. But COVID cases and hospitalizations are in decline and people are finally getting vaccinations. These are reasons to be optimistic, but the town is being cautious about opening up completely.

Town Hall now has a complete staff, some meetings are already scheduled for in-person and people can make appointments to do things in Town Hall if they need to. Town board, committee and commission meetings are still in virtual mode, but some are starting to consider having in person meetings, or a hybrid ZOOM and in-person meetings. Our schools are now completely open with an option for a student to attend remotely.

The first selectman has been meeting with department heads to review their budgets. The Board of Education is also working on its budget and recordings of their meetings can be found at the Easton Minutes section of the ER9 website. The Board of Finance is planning the schedule for public meetings with each department to review its budget request.

The Board of Finance has been meeting virtually instead of in-person since April 2, 2020 when the board convened its first “ZOOM” meeting. — Paul Lindoerfer Photo

The current schedule for meeting with the largest departments is below. Smaller department reviews will be spread over those days. The meetings can be seen live with the ZOOM link in each meeting’s agenda posted on the Agenda, Minutes and Recordings section of town website and a recording of each meeting is also available there. 

Town of Easton Schedule of BOF Department Hearings
Date/Time:Department Hearing
2-MarTuesday 7:00 p.m.Senior Center  Insurance Commission  Assessor and Bd. Of Assessment Appeals  Building Department  Emergency Management  Police (Communication, Police, and Animal Control)
3-MarWednesday 7:00 p.m.Registrars of Voters  Conservation  Zoning Board of Appeals Commission for the Aging / Social Services  Library
4-MarThursday 7:00 p.m.Pension & Employee Benefits  Town Clerk  Tree Warden  Public Works, 660 Morehouse Road, Recycling, Street Lights
9-MarTuesday 7:00 p.m.Planning & Zoning Emergency Medical Service  Tax Collector  Parks & Recreation Fire Department Fire Marshal 
10-MarWednesday 7:00 p.m.Board of Education
11-MarThursday 7:00 p.m.Reserved

After the first round of BOF hearings with town departments, the tentative plan to produce a final budget and set the mill rate includes:

  • March 15 — Special Town Meeting: to hear presentations on matters having a potential impact on the budget (tentatively virtual or hybrid)
  • March 22 — Public Hearing on the Budget
  • March 23 to 30 — BOF meetings with selected departments
  • April 6 — Regular BOF meeting
  • April 26 — Annual Town Meeting
  • May 4 — Budget referendum

Plans for these events are in progress so check back here and on the town website for the final schedule dates and times.

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