Preston — Voters might be starting a new trend in budget votes, approving both the school and town government budgets in the first referendum for the second straight year after multiple votes were the norm in past years.
Voters on Wednesday approved the school budget 279 to 246, and the town government budget 295 to 230, not including the seven absentee ballots that remained to be counted after the machine tally was posted.
The approvals came despite significant increases in both budgets. Residents at the June 9 town meeting had sent the two budgets to referendum unchanged, with the proposed school budget of $13.45 million having a 7.8% spending increase, and the $4.5 million town government budget with an 8.6% spending increase.
Following the announcement of the vote, the Board of Finance held a special meeting and voted to approve the 2022-23 tax rate at 27.88 mills, an increase of 0.94 mill over this year’s tax rate. The board voted to use $900,000 in town surplus funds to offset the tax increase, the highest amount since the $750,000 budgeted in 2017 to offset taxes, adding $50,000 to the board’s proposal in May to use $850,000 in surplus to offset.
Board member Stacey Becker made the motion to increase the surplus amount and reduce the tax rate increase to less than one mill. She noted that all residents are facing cost increases, and the town surplus funds are taxpayer dollars. Only board member Robert Congdon opposed increasing the amount of surplus used to offset the tax increase.
According to the town budget presentation document, for a homeowner with a house valued at $175,000, taxes under the proposed budget would have increased by $183 next year, from $4,715 to $4,898 under the earlier proposal of a projected 1.05-mill increase, before the Board of Finance reduced the increase to 0.94 mills.
Not subject to referendum, the town’s debt service payments will drop by 2.9% next year to $755,500.
During earlier budget discussions, First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier cited rising costs for many aspects of the budget, including fuel costs for gasoline and diesel up by 22%. She budgeted 4% employee raises across the board, still below the Social Security cost-of-living increase.
Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said the proposed school budget, with a $977,438 spending increase, would keep all current programs and staffing. Several fixed costs contributed to the proposed spending increase, he said, including a $116,000, or 8%, increase in health insurance costs, a $530,000 boost in contracted salaries and an expected $310,000 hike in high school and special education tuition.
“Obviously, I’m very happy that it passed,” Allyn-Gauthier said. “We’ll be in better shape to keep our services intact and make some public works improvements.”