Proposed Westbrook Budget Increase Less Than 1%
Westbrook is seeking a 0.5 percent increase for its total proposed Fiscal Year 2021–’22 budget, which at $31,278,297 includes town operating expenses, the school budget, and debt service. On Thursday, May 13, Westbrook voters will vote on the budget in person at the Mulvey Municipal Center from noon to 8 p.m.
Voters will decide whether to adopt the annual town budget for Fiscal Year 2021–’22, whose total is $31,278,297 (a $146,667 year-over-year increase), as well as the five-year capital plan with projects for FY 2021–’22 totaling $1,821,707. The annual town budget meeting, presenting the budget to voters, is scheduled for Tuesday, May 4, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.
Thanks to department heads carefully managing expenses, town operating expenses amounted to a 0.8 percent decrease from FY 2020–’21, First Selectman Noel Bishop said. This partially offset a 1.4 percent increase in the education budget, which Bishop called “the lowest budget in preliminary rounds by the schools” that he’d seen in his 10-plus years of experience in his role as first selectman.
“This is always a lengthy process,” Bishop said of the budget negotiations. “It starts in December, [when] our Finance Department asks department heads” for their budgets. This year, budgets were essentially flat, aside from salaries, he explained.
The mill rate will remain “flat,” Bishop said. The Board of Finance will set the mill rate once the budget is adopted.
Increase in Fund Balance
There was at least one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic: Due to the cancellation of so many town programs, the town saved funds that are normally expended over the course of a year. This, together with Finance Director Donna Castracane’s efforts to obtain FEMA reimbursement for pandemic-related expenses, resulted in an increase to the town’s fund balance of more than $1 million.
The total fund balance is currently just over 21 percent of operating expenses, well over the 12 to 15 percent recommended by the state as well as auditors, according to Bishop and Castracane. This resource will enable the town to help fund capital projects above and beyond the town’s FY 2021–’22 revenues.
“If the capital plan is approved as presented and funds appropriated as planned, with a portion coming from fund balance,” the balance will retain 19.3 percent of operating expenses, Castracane told Harbor News by email. “This is well within the town policy of having a fund balance between 12–15 percent of operating revenue.”
Also contributing to the town’s ability to keep taxes flat was a growth in its Grand List, Bishop pointed out. The town expects an increase in property taxes of $187,942 compared to the current fiscal year.
The town also anticipates that state funding will remain at its current level.
The coming fiscal year will see particular capital expenses of $11,000 for police rifles and $36,000 for a new vehicle for the fire marshal. An expense of $600,000 for the town’s paving program is slotted for the first year of the five-year capital improvement plan, followed by budget items of $300,000 and $350,000 for each of the following four years.
While the town proposed an $800,000 expense for town building roofs for the coming fiscal year, the Board of Finance postponed that expenditure entirely until FY 2022–’23, followed by a total of $172,000 spread out over the following three years.
The proposed recreation center will see funding of $750,000, divided evenly between capital plan years two and three (fiscal years 2022–23 and 2023–24).
This year’s budget audit was entirely positive, with auditors’ recommendations for improvement consisting only of “procedural stuff we’ve been wanting to work on,” said Castracane. Any larger issues have already been addressed by the finance office, she said.
Over the past year, resident participation in town issues has been much higher than usual, Bishop said, thanks to Zoom meetings, which residents can join at home, versus in-person meetings.
“We have far more people in those Zoom meetings than at in-person meetings,” he said. But “we want to make sure they come out and vote,” he added.