PLYMOUTH - The second referendum on the 2017-18 town budget will take place Wednesday, May 31, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., in the Community Room at Town Hall.
The proposed budget is about $41 million, with $300,000 more for schools over the current year.
At the start of May, voters rejected the first iteration of the proposed budget, which was about $40.9 million, by 382 to 157, with an approximately 6.5 percent voter turnout.
The first referendum ballot included an optional question: “If you answered no above, please mark your reasons below: Budget too high. Budget too low.” Of those who answered the question, 321 said the budget was too high, and 51 said it was too low.
Town Council members said they would again like some form of the optional question on the May 31 ballot, to get an idea of voters’ thoughts.
A lengthy public hearing on the budget Thursday night started with Ralph Zovich, Board of Finance chairman, saying the board had cut $100,000 from the school side of the budget, leaving just a $100,000 increase for the schools over the current year.
He noted that a six to one ratio of voters in the first referendum said the budget was too high. Even though it was a low voter turnout that’s still a significant ratio, he said.
Over two dozen people spoke at the hearing, most of them calling for more funding for education.
Melissa Johnson, Board of Education chairwoman, said the schools account for 67 percent of the town’s employees and 60 percent of the total budget, yet the finance board was only allowing a 0.42 percent increase for schools versus a 5.46 percent increase for the town side of the budget.
“Why was just our side and not the entire budget cut?” she asked.
Karen Kulesa, school board vice chairwoman, said some voters in the first referendum wrote on their ballots that they voted against the budget then because the school portion was too low.
Zovich said the optional question didn’t ask for a reason why people might have thought the budget was too high or low. He compared written comments to “someone scribbling in the margins.”
Mayor David Merchant said he backed adding more funding for education but if parents want to support that they need to come out in force and vote.
“You don’t win games in the locker room, games are won on the field. In order to win a game on the field you’ve got to get out there on referendum day and produce some results,” he said.
Eventually the finance board approved adding another $200,000 to school funding. The school board had originally requested a $542,289 increase over its current budget.
Finance board members also agreed to Merchant’s request to add $8,000 to Zoning Enforcement Officer Scott Eisenlohr’s salary so he could work another five hours a week on the blight problem in town. Even with the extra time Eisenlohr would still be part-time.
To offset the ZEO salary increase, they voted to take $8,000 out of the town aid to roads section of the proposed budget.
The finance board engaged in prolonged, and sometimes contentious, discussion of more possible cuts, mostly proposed by member Pattie DeHuff.
One of her suggestions was for the town to go back to having a part-time assessor to save money, since the current assessor, Rae Ann Walcott, is leaving the position soon. Merchant spoke against it, saying the new assessor will be making some $22,000 less, and the savings could be used to increase hours for one of the three clerks in the assessor’s office.
Most of DeHuff’s proposals gained no traction, and at one point fellow member James Kilduff accused her of “grandstanding to make a point.”
DeHuff said she was protesting that the finance board had actually increased the proposed budget after the majority of voters in the first referendum had rejected it as too high.
If the proposed budget fails in the second referendum, the council has until June 10 to come up with its own final version.
At the start of the public hearing Zovich emphasized that the town was under financial pressure because the recent property revaluation has decreased the Grand List, the town’s fund balance is almost depleted, pension and health costs have increased, the town population is aging and not growing, and especially because the state’s ongoing financial troubles mean state aid to municipalities is uncertain.
“I’m not trying to spread doom and gloom,” he said. “I think it’s my responsibility to share with you the facts as we know them. It is entirely possible that on July 1 the State of the Connecticut will have no budget and no fund balance.”
The state legislature could even authorize municipalities to issue a supplemental tax bill later in the year, he said. “It’s like adding insult to injury.”
However, Zovich said Plymouth can still pay its bills, “we are not anywhere close to being bankrupt.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.