‘It was a balancing act’: Weston first selectman proposes budget increase

WESTON — The selectmen are considering a “net budget” of nearly $73. 2 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

First Selectman Christopher Spaulding’s budget proposal is 3.26 percent more than the current $70.9 million “net budget.”

The total “gross budget” amount for the upcoming year is about $76.2 million and includes a total debt service of about $5.5 million and a deduction of revenues that total nearly $3.1 million.

“We’re not playing games here,” Spaulding said. “It is a complicated budget but it is an honest budget.”

As part of that total, Spaulding is asking for nearly $14.1 million for the town operating budget for 2021-22, which represents a 2.73 percent increase over the current $13.7 million budget.

It also includes the schools’ $55.6 million budget for 2021-22, which is 2.68 percent more than the current budget of nearly $54.2 million. It was presented to the selectmen last week.

“It is a complicated budget,” Spaulding said of the whole plan. “We are doing some nuanced things with it, but it is all actuaryly acceptable.”

In particular, he explained how the high capital budget — about $1 million in total following offset reductions — was organized to help the town take advantage of certain infrastructure grant money, which is bringing millions to Weston for bridge, sidewalk and road repairs.

“The goals basically remain the same as the last couple of years … We want to seriously address infrastructure needs,” he said.

Spaulding explained that owing to a “hefty number of real estate transaction,” the town’s reserve fund balance is estimated to end up extremely high at $14.8 million, equal to around 19.4 percent of the proposed budget.

He said a reserve of 10 to 12 percent would be adequate for the town to maintain its AAA bond rating.

“We’ve been trying to bring it down,” he said.

Spaulding explained that they weren’t able to accommodate a variety of the requests made, in particular those relating to new personnel.

“There’s intense pressure on a lot of our staff and I acknowledge that,” he said, but pointed out the high cost of benefits for full-time employees.

“I would love to give everybody everything,” he said, including more staff.

Selectman Stephan Grozinger commended the work.

“I think it’s a very disciplined budget,” he said. “I think it takes a very real look at what Weston needs for the future.”

Grozinger said he wanted to see some money restored to the library’s budget though for more staff, as well as new books and materials.

“I think they did make a very compelling case for the increase,” he said.

Library Director Karen Tatarka said the library was understaffed compared to other libraries, particularly based on the services being provided.

“We’ve kind of hit a tipping point,” she said. “The types of services that we’re providing to the community have changed drastically over the last five years.”

Spaulding said the additional $38,000 requested was “a big number,” but they’ll discuss it more.

Firefighter Craig Cohen also questioned some fire department funding, inclduing money to replace the department’s outdated sub-contained breathing apparatus.

“We were also supposed to get a new rescue. Our rescue truck is old and underperforming,” he said, noting the cost would only escalate in the years ahead. “It’s a concern to me and our members that this isn’t being directed.”

Jonathan Luiz, town administrator, said they decided to take a wait-and-see approach since there was a possibility for grant money for the breathing apparatus.

“If you don’t get the grant … then my advice to the Board of Selectmen is to have the fire department come (and) ask for a supplemental appropriation,” he said.

Spaulding said he understood the importance of the rescue truck — something Cohen called “a hazard to the people who do the job in this town” — but felt it wasn’t absolutely necessary at this time.

“It’s not that we’re not paying attention,” he told Cohen and Chief John Pokorny.

“Obviously you guys are critical and we know that … It’s a very tough decision,” he said, citing the high capital budget.

Spaulding said “nobody got everything they wanted,” but they tried to give each department items aimed toward their core needs within their financial constraints and other challenges.

“We did everything we could,” he said. “It was a balancing act.”