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  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Nick D'Alleva talks about his disinterest in Article 3 which would account for a pay increase to help offset the rise in healthcare costs in the Police Union Contract, during Saturday morning's Litchfield Town Deliberative Session at Campbell High School.
  • Staff file photo

    Litchfield Chief of Police, Joseph E. O'Brion answers an inquiry about the status of two police officers working part time in Campbell High School during deliberative sessions in February 2011.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Jason Allen makes a case for $2500 to be added to the bottom line of the Litchfield town budget for recreational activities and programs, Saturday morning during Litchfield's Deliberative Session at Campbell High School.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Among other residents, State Representattive Ralph Boehm listens as questions are asked and answered by members of Litchfield's school board during the town's deliberative session at Campbell High School, Saturday morning.
Sunday, February 13, 2011

Litchfield budget sees few changes

LITCHFIELD – Voters at Litchfield’s Town Meeting will consider reducing the amount of funding for conservation land, but not by as much as officials had proposed, and the wording of the warrant will be clearer – both thanks to amendments during the Deliberative Session on Saturday.

Roughly 50 voters took part in the 31⁄2 hour session – less than 1 percent of the town’s 6,040 registered voters – which resulted in relatively few changes to the proposed warrant articles for the March 8 Town Meeting.

Selectmen tried hard to keep spending down this year, said Chairman Frank Byron, knowing that taxpayers already would be asked to dig deeper to make up for a decrease in state education funding. The proposed $4.49 million budget is $50,000 less than this year’s (despite increases in the police department), and Litchfield remains among the most tight-fisted towns in a notoriously flinty state, in terms of per capita spending, Byron said.

Although voters seemed unanimously inclined to maintain and cherish that status, they did agree to add $2,500 to the recreation budget. The town’s Recreation Commission hopes to make bingo, CPR classes and other programs self-sustaining through participation fees, member Jason Allen said, but first they need funds to offer such programs. Voters also snipped about $1,000 from the Town Hall budget, reflecting money that was no longer needed to send the town clerk and treasurer to two annual conferences, where a single joint conference is now planned.

Conservation Commission funding drew the most extended debate, and voters shot down a proposal to halve the town’s funding of its conservation land acquisition fund. Voters had agreed in 2003 to use all current use tax revenues for the fund, and the commission has bought several parcels, and now has a balance of nearly $900,000 to buy more land.

Selectmen and the Budget Committee had suggested treating half of any current use tax revenue as income for the general fund, to try to further reduce taxes.

Conservation Commissioner Richard Husband reminded residents that besides helping to preserve the town’s rural character, town-owned land also helps reduce demand on services, keeping the tax rate lower, and voters approved his suggestion to make the split 80-20, with the town taking just 20 percent of the revenue (voters rejected a 99-1 percent split, however). Voters also approved a change to the wording of the proposal, to make it state more clearly that the article would cut conservation funding.

The proposed police department contract, which gives officers raises of 1 to 2 percent along with incentives to reduce overtime, drew considerable discussion, but ultimately no amendments.

Selectman George Lambert said the town needs to keep police pay competitive with other towns to avoid becoming a place that pays to train officers who then leave for greener pastures. The department expects to reduce overtime spending by allowing officers to accumulate unused vacation time and switching from fixed numbers of vacation, sick and personal days to an “earned time” program, both changes within the proposed contract, he said.

The town also hopes that some officers will take advantage of a proposed “buy back” option, offering to give employees half of the money the town would have spent on their health insurance if the employees don’t enroll in town plans (though some that refund would be put in the officer’s flex spending accounts).

Some residents noted that they themselves have been paying increased health insurance premiums while also suffering pay cuts.

“I don’t believe that public sector employees should have a better deal than those paying for them,” Jason Guerette said.

“We all need to scale back just a little bit,” Nick D’Alleva added later.

“Right now, there are too many people hurting.”

For the officers, the proposed contract amounts to a pay cut, Lambert said, as health insurance premiums will gobble their meager raises, and the anticipated savings on overtime should reduce the department’s overall spending.

Earlier in the meeting, Guerette also challenged Police Chief Joseph O’Brion to demonstrate his department’s effectiveness in dealing with drug abuse among the town’s youth.

The town has a part-time school resource officer and another part-time officer who runs the DARE program, and, Guerette said, he would support increased funding, but would like to see some data on what police have done to date. Guerette said high school parents seem to agree that drugs are a problem among Litchfield’s youth.

“Either we have a drug problem in the schools or we don’t,” Guerette said. “I want to be able to measure it. ... I’d like to see some results that are tangible, and documentable.”

O’Brion countered that while police keep track of arrests and other such activity, the school resource officers work mainly with juveniles, so their reports are all confidential by law. Byron added that the low number of drug arrests might suggest that the programs are effective.

In other matters Saturday:

■ Voters agreed – as at last week’s school district session – to try combining the school district and town’s deliberative sessions next year, and to start the meeting sometime in the morning.

■ Voters agreed to consider a proposal to shift fire hydrant funding to the town, rather than water service ratepayers. As it stands, some people live near hydrants, but have their own wells, and don’t help pay for them. If voters agree, everyone will pay for hydrants, even those whose neighborhoods will never get them. As a result, of course, the charge per household will be lower.

■ Voters agreed to consider letting the Board of Selectmen hire the town’s treasurer and fire chief, rather than having people run for the job in town-wide elections. Selectmen would have the authority to run background checks, Lambert said, and the appointment process would widen the talent pool by letting selectmen hire nonresidents.

■ Voters also approved some purely administrative articles, that would change the town’s accounting of highway block grant funds and spending; and create a fund to anticipate and pay accumulated vacation time.

Andrew Wolfe can be reached at 594-6410 or