On Monday night, Easton's annual town meeting heated up inside . About 56 people attended the event, which began at 8 and ended at roughly 11 p.m.
The main topic up for debate? Easton's proposed $41.1 million operating budget for 2011-2012.
Many residents expressed their frustration towards the town on a variety of issues, but applauded the the Region 9 budget summary.
“We are not trying to impose more complications,” said Mark Lewis, chairman of the Region 9 Board of Education.
Adam Dunsby of the Easton Board of Education said that because of budget tightening Easton's kindergarten through eighth grade students will spend more time in gym classes than in music classes.
“Not only do we deliver quality education, but we deliver it in an economic way,” Dunsby said. “We do provide efficient education, and one of those consequences of that is when cuts are made, there is no good place to turn."
As a result, “some of the kids are spending more time in gym class than we think is appropriate for Easton kids,” Dunsby stated.
The for Easton's schools, allows the school board to restore many of the programs they had to cut in past years. Among those programs are the restoration of world languages in sixth grade and the restoration of a health/gym teacher and a music teacher at Helen Keller Middle School.
“All in all this is a very frugal budet,” stated Dunsby. “I’m optimistic.”
Due to the slight increase in the grand list, the budget was particularly difficult to create according to board members. Aside from the increased 1.91 percent included in Easton’s school budget, to the Easton share of the Region 9 budget.
Easton residents were frustrated with the town while other issues were discussed. Several questions proposed by Easton residents appeared unanswered, and others were answered with lackluster conviction.
With the walls of the elementary school’s lunchroom decorated with words like perseverance, honesty and respect, residents and the selectmen were surrounded with written support to convey these characteristics. Perseverance certainly topped the list of characteristics used by all in attendance.
Beverly Dacey, an Easton resident, was most concerned about lacking information within the budget and where funds were coming from. One of her most pressing concerns regarded how the selectmen planned to pay for the South Park Avenue land purchase.
“We have a financial obligation to pay on a land purchase [South Park Avenue], and the principle payment this year is $300,000—how are we paying for that," Dacey asked.
The answer she got from board members was to come to the meeting in June. Left unimpressed with the answer, she demanded that they take the time they promised to answer questions and use it as they had claimed they would. Still, she was told to attend the meeting in June and left without an explanation.
John Hammell, the town’s treasurer, then stepped up to the microphone.
“Sequestered funds will be used for South Park,” he explained.
Dacey’s second concern regarded the superintendent’s medical benefits.
“When the superintendent’s contract was renewed, the Board of Ed[ucation] agreed to provide full medical benefit coverage for him and his wife, who is an attorney, for the rest of their lives,” Dacey said. “How are we paying that?”
No direct explanation was offered, but Dacey was assured by the selectmen that not a penny of it was coming out of Easton's taxes.
Victor Alfondre was not happy with the budget plan either, however; he appreciated the fact that the Board of Selectmen was offering a platform for residents to speak that evening.
“What I am hearing about this whole issue is for the past 31 years, we have had miniscule representation, but now we are given the chance to speak out,” Alfondre stated.
A strong feeling amongst the room was that action was not taking place in the way that residents would like it to.
“We don’t need any more excuses,” stated resident Val Buckley. “From an employee perspective, in the past 24 years of working for this town, this is the most miserable budget I’ve seen. I feel that I’m seeing the same scenario that we’d seen a few years ago—where we avoid making decisions because we don’t want to spend money now.”
Buckley is the director of and has seen situations that have hindered the people she serves. According to Buckley, she has had to have fundraisers to fix problems that she feels should have been taken care of years ago, by the town. Ice removal and EMS garage repair were among the plethora of problems she has seen get worse over the years.
“As director of the senior center, I feel that it is hard for me to ask people to go out and vote, but I will because if I don’t, there will be programs that will never come back,” Buckley explained. “I think we are going to get to the point where we tear apart the entire town."
With programs and stake and tax dollars rising, residents remained uneasy. Dacey explained that “$10,000 six years ago is not $10,000 today—there has been inflation.” She added she would like to see the selectmen work with what they have in an economic fashion.
“We are held hostages to this broken system,” stated resident Grant Monsarrat. “If anything, we need a tax decrease, not a tax increase.”
The largest concern of the evening regarded the purchasing authority and Competitive Bidding Ordinance.
“It has completely changed, and there’s been no conversation about this,” Dacey said.
Dacey, who takes ordinances seriously, due to the fact that it “impacts everything we do moving forward,” felt that residents needed more time to understand the proposed changes.
“I am not so sure this is a good direction for us to go in,” she stated. “It costs us money to go to bidding. I think we would all appreciate a little more time to digest [it]."
“The state of the country these days has left me feeling very disenfranchised from the process,” Dacey explained. “This is a lot to digest in one evening. I would appreciate if we could table these issues.”
She motioned to table the ordinance and few backed her motion.
Some issues on residents’ minds were not brought to the floor, but spoken about amongst each other. Isabel Villagomez has concerns about the school curriculum.
“I have two children,” she said. “One is in elementary school and the other is in middle school. We do not have proper curriculum—it’s not typical. [The Board of Education] said they are going to change it, but until today, they have not done anything about it,” she said. “We are pursuing a more challenging education for our children.”
Areas that gained over $1,000 in the budget were:
- The First Selectman at a 1.1% increase ($1,751)
- Audit Fees at a 2.9% increase ($1,050)
- Tax Collector at a 2.3% increase ($2,089)
- Senior Center at a 2.6% increase ($4,001)
- SSC Building at a 1.5% increase ($5,697)
Decreases fell among public safety areas:
- Police Department at a 7.7% decrease ($113,559)
- Fire Marshal at a 1.2% decrease ($354)
When the meeting started, residents voted in John Harris as the meeting’s moderator. Residents were provided with several pages of information, as well as the Town of Easton’s 2010 Annual report. Discussed and acted upon were:
- The 2010 Annual Town Report.
- The proposed annual Town budget of $41,113,936 for fiscal year 2011-2012.
- The five year capital project plan.
- Set July 1, 2011 and January 2, 2012 for the 2010 grand list bills.
- A Conservation Easement from Frank and Kathleen Minardi.
- An ordinance providing for the membership of Easton in the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council of Elected Officials.
- Establishment of an Agricultural Commission.
- An ordinance enabling the Town to publish summaries of adopted ordinances.
- A revision to the Town’s Purchasing Authority and Competitive Bidding Ordinance.
- A revision of the fee schedule to Zoning Board of Appeals applications.
- Adjournment of the meeting to a machine vote being held on May 3, 2011 between 6:00 am and 8:00 pm at Samuel Staples Elementary School to vote on the 2011-2012 annual budget.
Board members encourage residents to turn out for the machine vote on Tuesday, May 3. The vote will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at Samuel Staples Elementary School.