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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Litchfield moves budget forward

LITCHFIELD – Town residents had little to say Saturday about Litchfield’s operating budget proposal. But they didn’t hold back on several other matters.

About 80 voters gathered Saturday at Campbell High School for the town’s Deliberative Session, and in a matter of minutes, they agreed to send the town’s $4.96 million budget proposal forward to town voters at next month’s elections.

The proposed spending plan is about $470,000, or 10 percent, higher than the current year’s budget, but most of the increases stem from prior votes to increase the town’s fire hydrant fees and Highway Block Grant funds, among other costs, officials said. If passed, the budget would add 44 cents to the town tax rate, according to town documents.

“If you remove all those (prior) charges, the budget is increased by about $2,500,” Selectman John Brunelle, the board’s vice-chairman, told the crowd, offering some of the only words about the budget. “I think (this proposal) represents a good attempt to keep our taxes flat and keep the level services that we have today.”

Residents had more to say on several other warrant articles, including ones proposing to create a dedicated cable fund for public television fees and to establish a three-year term for the town’s part-time fire chief.

Last year, residents, who previously elected the fire chief, shifted the responsibility to the board of selectmen to appoint the position.

But the petitioned warrant article neglected to establish a term length for the position. As a result, selectmen crafted this article, proposing a three-year term.

“It’s a sense of security. … We don’t want to have a new chief in here every year,” Steve Perry, chairman of the board of selectman, told the crowd.

But some audience members bristled, amending the proposal to include a provision deferring a one-year term if the three-year proposal fails.

The town selectmen have collected applications for the vacant position and are hoping to make an appointment in the coming weeks.

“I would prefer to tread along slowly,” said resident Jason Guerrette, who proposed the amendment. “As we gain trust in the person you’ve appointed, maybe we could bring it back again to see if this person matches the value of our community.”

The other article that drew questions from the audience was one proposing a dedicated fund for public television fees.

Currently, town officials collect a 2 percent franchise charge from cable subscribers. But the fees collected go into the town’s general fund. Under the new proposal, the charges would go instead into a dedicated cable fund to be spent on operation and materials for the town’s public access stations.

Some residents who expressed opposition to the franchise fee proposed to delay the creation of the fund until 2014, but the amendment failed a voice vote, and residents moved the fund article forward to the town elections.

“If you feel this is an unfair tax … the power is within your control. Feel free to use it,” selectman George Lambert said, encouraging voters to sponsor a petitioned warrant article to do away with the charge.

“But right now, the question right here, is this (cable fund) a reasonable approach? I believe it is.”

Among other items, voters passed forward proposals to create separate public works and library trust funds, to rewrite the town’s capital expenditure requirements, and to hire a new part-time recreation coordinator at a cost of $4,759.

“At our level of volunteerism, we’re basically reaching a wall and an end. We’re looking for some help,” John Bryant, chairman of the town’s recreation committee, told the audience.

The crowd also moved forward a proposal for 1.5 percent cost-of-living raises for the town’s non-union staff members and to replace the roof at the Town Hall, which doubles as the police station. The roof, installed in 1996, has deteriorated in recent years, officials said.

Funding for the project would come entirely from surplus funds rather than increased budget costs.

“The roof is failing now,” Selectman Frank Byron told the crowd. “It’s going to get to the point we’re going to have damage done to the inside of the building if we don’t get this done in short order.”

Town residents will vote on these matters March 13 at the Town Elections.