The Day – ‘Tough’ budget decisions loom as East Lyme finance council weighs staffing requests

East Lyme – Members of the Finance Council said this week that the staff increases in the proposed budget of $81.34 million for 2022-23 would be “difficult” to consider in the context of the current economic realities affecting the residents whose property taxes pay for city services.

The school boards and electoral commissions proposal represents a total increase of $3.35 million, or 4.30%, over the current budget.

Staffing demands on the city side include several positions in public safety, information technology and human relations. On the school side, three of the roughly 12 positions added at the start of the school year with US federal bailout dollars will need to be absorbed into the operating budget if they are to continue.

At Monday’s finance board meeting, Democrat Peter DeRosa said demands for new positions were an “easy target” when deciding where to make cuts in order to come up with a budget that taxpayers will approve. .

Goals become harder to find once they are written into the annual operating budget, where fixed contract costs such as salaries, benefits, and utilities make up the bulk of expenses that increase with each new cycle. budgetary.

Recent year-over-year budget increases look like this: 2.29% in 2017, 1.35% in 2018, 2.52% in 2019, 2.7% in 2020, and 2.37% in the current budget.

The total proposed budget includes $54.61 million approved last month by the Board of Education, as well as a spending plan drawn up by first Republican coach Kevin Seery that includes $20.42 million for general government, $5.67 million in debt servicing and $700,660 in capital expenditures. This shakes up increases of 4.59% on the education side and 3.69% on the city side.

The general government spending plan includes two new police officers, two dispatchers, a firefighter, a director of information technology and a part-time human resources assistant.

Of the dozen or so education budget items initially funded by federal pandemic aid, budget documents show eight are expected to be covered in the coming year by what remains of the allocation. of the district. That leaves an elementary math coach, middle school social worker, and part-time school psychologist to be funded by city taxpayers.

The Finance Council has been listening to presentations from department heads over the past month. Seery, after sitting on the grounds of department heads including Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton and Police Chief Mike Finkelstein, said they all made “great records” for the additional hires. .

“But then again, we all realize there are limits to what can be done,” Seery said. He added that the city will continue to provide the best services possible.

Finance Council Chair Denise Hall, a Republican, said the focus will be on safety – “and keeping in mind what everyone is going through with inflation and gas prices and all the rest”.

public safety

The proposed police budget of $3.03 million, as approved by councilors, represents an increase of $129,079, or 4.46%, over the current year.

Finkelstein, who negotiated a new contract last year that raised his base salary by about 20% to $135,000, wrote in budget documents that the increase took him from the lowest-paid chief of the region to the “average wage range”.

This week, he said earning $15,000 to $50,000 less than neighboring police department chiefs saved the city $80,000 to $200,000 in his first five years as inaugural independent police chief.

He told the finance board that part of his salary is reimbursable by the state’s Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, as he is also the director of emergency management within the area of Millstone nuclear power station emergency preparedness. Most recently, the agency reimbursed the city $50,303.

The contract also specifies that his annual emergency management director stipend will increase from $10,000 to $22,000 on July 1.

Finkelstein said the request for two additional officers was part of a plan by the Police Commission to hire a pair of officers each year for six budget cycles, starting in 2021. The finance board last year – with some members supporting no new officers and others supporting two – compromised by the inclusion of one officer in the budget that was eventually passed in a referendum.

Finkelstein’s presentation described a current staff of 26 full-time officers, including the chief, two lieutenants, six patrol sergeants, two detectives, 13 patrol officers, a school resource officer and a federal task force officer.

Two additional officers would allow the department to schedule an additional officer for 10 shifts per week, according to the chief. The department usually has one sergeant and two patrollers per shift, which is the minimum required.

He said those numbers surprised some people, especially during the busiest and most crowded summer months. “It’s a tough thing, on a Saturday in July at 4 p.m., to know that’s all that’s on the streets watching over your city,” he said.

Although he said he doesn’t yet have the stats to prove it, more than the minimum number of patrols required should reduce overtime costs. This is because with three officers and a sergeant on duty, an officer could call and the department would still have enough to meet the minimum requirement.

Finkelstein told the board he could not say whether two additional officers were “a financially feasible goal.” But he said that’s where the Police Commission, through research and data processing, has determined that staff need to be in order for officers to “do the job that is given to us properly.”

The request for two full-time dispatchers would allow for two people per shift 24 hours a day, according to Finkelstein. Currently, only one dispatcher is assigned to night shifts.

“We’ve had several incidents that have happened over the years where we had a structure fire and an entrapment accident at the same time on a night shift,” Finkelstein said. “It’s almost unimaginable for a dispatcher to be able to handle this alone at a time.”

The Board of Selectmen previously halved a request from Niantic Fire Department Chief Jim Barone for two additional firefighters to $56,181 each. A new hire would bring the number of full-time firefighters to six.

Citing an increasing number of calls and a decrease in the availability of volunteers, Barone said his department should request three additional firefighters – “but we will take one and work with him”.

A $105,000 chief information officer was named to the finance board earlier this month by public works director Joe Bragaw, whose department, along with Finkelstein’s, is currently playing an active role in administration of computer services.

Bragaw said the new director would oversee technology at city facilities and should keep pace with technological advancements in emergency services. Police and dispatch equipment was recently upgraded as part of the move to the new Public Safety Center on Main Street West.

The finance council is charged by the city charter with reviewing budget proposals from elected officials and school boards. The finance board can make detailed cuts on the city side and can specify a bottom line for the school board to decide how to implement. A caveat is that the education budget cannot be lower than the current year’s spending level.

A public hearing is scheduled for April 25 and the referendum on the budget is scheduled for May 19.

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