The Board of Finance approved a budget of $46,249,385 to fund town and school spending in 2021-22, pending taxpayer approval.
Town officials will present the budget proposed for discussion and comment at the Annual Town Meeting on Monday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at Samuel Staples Elementary School.
Taxpayers will vote on the proposed spending plan at the annual budget referendum May 4 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Samuel Staples Elementary School.
The proposed budget contains an increase of $1,609,576 or 3.61% over current year spending of $44,639,809. If voters approve it, the projected tax rate will be 32.35 mills, a 4.35% increase over the current year.
The owners of a home with a fair market value of $629,000 — with an assessment of $440,300 — would see their taxes rise $594.23.
The unassigned fund balance was $7,221,149 as of June 30, 2020, according to Chris Calvert, town finance director. This figure does not include any anticipated return from the current year, she said. The proposed tax rate is based on a 98.785% collection rate, using 38% of the current fund balance to offset taxes.
First Selectman David Bindelglass acknowledged the significant increase but said, “I hope people will understand it’s necessary and remember the mill rate looks somewhat higher than usual as a result of being reduced last year by taking more money out of the undesignated fund balance.”
Bindelglass emphasized the importance of funding the Board of Education request, particularly in light of Covid’s effect on children, and the ongoing trend of a rising number of Easton students and falling number of Redding students attending Joel Barlow High School.
The tax rate for fiscal year 2020-21 is 31 mills. A list of mill rates and grand list figures dating back to fiscal year 1978-79 can be accessed here.
2021-22 Budget Drivers
The overall spending plan includes the municipal budget (which can be accessed as an Excel file or as a PDF), the Easton Board of Education budget and Easton’s share of the Region 9 budget. Taxpayers vote for the municipal and education budgets separately.
The biggest budget driver is the changing enrollment distribution between Easton and Redding students at Joel Barlow High School. Easton’s share is growing, a trend that’s expected to continue into the foreseeable future. The Region 9 budgets increased between 0 to 1% in the last three years, according to the budget document. The 2021-22 budget change to Redding is ($533,667) due to a decrease in students and Easton’s is $797,667 due to the increase in students.
The special education portion of the Region 9 budget is $5,815,487, a $650,481 (12.59%) increase from 2020-21. A new cost on the education side is the addition of a director of technology, a cost Easton would share with Redding, proportionately. Other cost increases include restoration of the Helen Keller Middle School librarian and restoration of after-school programs.
A part -time social worker at Keller is being increased to full time to help with the rise in emotional needs from COVID. The position was needed even before the pandemic to address the increasing rates of anxiety seen in students nationwide in recent years, according to board member Jenny Chieda.
The town side of the budget includes restoration of a staff member for the Department of Public Works that was cut in 2008. The town is “back to our normal plan for police car replacements and contributions for fire engine replacements,” Bindgel glass said. “The rest is unchanged.”
Multi-Use Pathway on Pause
The finance board at its April 6 meeting meeting approved the 2021-22 budget, but Chairman Andy Kachele refused a “courtesy” request by board member Art Laske to add the multi-use pathway to the agenda before the budget discussion and vote. The matter led to a tense exchange between the two men.
Laske wanted to revisit using part of the the unassigned fund balance to pay for the pathway as a capital expense. The finance board had previously voted 3-3 at its March 2 meeting to use part of the unassigned fund balance to pay for the pathway. The pathway proposal needed a majority to advance it, and with a tie vote, it couldn’t. Therefore, the 3-3 vote constituted a denial by the finance board.
Due to the availability of a state grant to pay 80% of the cost of the pathway project, and support by the police, school officials and a wide swath of residents, the Board of Selectmen added the project to the March 30 referendum as an advisory question to guage voter support. A majority, 708 – 604, voted in favor of the project.
Kachele and Laske are longtime finance board members, Kachele having served for 33 years and Laske for 22 years. Both men are doing what they think is “in the town’s best interest,” according to Bindelglass, who said he has “a good relationship” with both of them, even if they don’t always agree.
In light of all of the taxpayer and town officials’ support for the pathway and the finance board’s tie vote, Kachele, Bindelglass, Land Use Director Justin Giorlando and others are exploring “viable” alternatives for the project, Bindelglass said. He urged residents to be patient while officials explore alternatives.
A ‘New Normal’
This year, the Annual Town Meeting will be held in person although limited to 100 people in accordance with the governor’s order for indoor groups. The referendum will take place in person with an absentee ballot option extended to all voters who are not able to or choose not to vote at the polls.
Last year, Bindelglass fought to achieve permission from the state to hold a referendum on Easton’s annual budget. But in an ongoing effort to protect public health and safety and mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Governor Ned Lamont on May 1 issued Executive Order No. 7HH, banning any town meeting or referendum with the purpose of approving the budget.
The Board of Finance was authorized to determine the annual budget under the Protection of Public Health and Safety during COVID-19 Pandemic and Response – Municipal Budget Adoption, Common-Interest Community Meetings.
Easton property owners saw a slight reduction in their tax bills in the 2020-21 tax year when the Board of Selectmen set the tax rate at 31 mills, a decrease of 1.06% from the previous year’s 31.33 mills.
Read more about the 2020-21 budget season: Finance Board to Set Final 2020-21 Budget on Tuesday and Tax Bills Dip Slightly after Unusual Budget Season.
Photo at top: The iconic Aspetuck Reservoir reflects Easton’s bucolic character. — Tomas Koeck Photo