Bethel voters will return to the polls on Thursday, May 10, to decide on the town operating budget and capital plan.
This date was set as the final order of business at the reconvened Town Meeting, which was held on April 24. The meeting provided voters the opportunity to comment on and propose changes to the budgets under consideration. Three such proposals were discussed.
1. A motion was made to lower the capital nonrecurring budget (essentially a cash account) from $500,000 to $225,000. In response, Board of Finance Chairman Bob Manfreda provided three justifications for the higher amount. First, the Board of Finance’s historic budgeting of $225,000 for this account has proven to be inadequate, and the town has had to utilize short-term debt to cover accrued expenses. Second, the Board of Finance this year looked to a list of long-recognized town maintenance needs whose combined price tags exceed $225,000. Third, Manfreda explained that this cash account will help the town avoid raising more debt for capital items. First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker concurred with Manfreda, saying that the town has underfunded capital needs for a long time. “We’re asking the town to invest in itself,” Knickerbocker said, “so we’re not piling up debt.” The motion was voted down.
2. A motion was made to reduce Police Department salaries by $60,000, the approximate cost of an additional police officer. Police Captain Stephen Pugner provided the response. He clarified that the larger size of the new police station had nothing to do with the department’s need for an additional officer. He pointed out that the last officer hired was a school resource officer (hence not one out on the road) in 2013. Prior to that, an officer was last hired in 2007. The demands on the department, however, have increased, due to both an increase in Bethel’s household and business population and increased state and federal compliance requirements of officers. Pugner compared Bethel’s department to that of two neighboring towns, Newtown and Monroe. Bethel Police Department has greater call volume and arrests than either of the other towns, yet they each have six more officers. The motion was voted down.
3. A motion was made to delete the $230,000 Elgin street sweeper from the capital plan. First Selectman Knickerbocker responded by explaining that removal of debris is an EPA requirement and therefore not optional for the town. Bethel would risk fines for noncompliance if it did not clean its streets. He pointed out that the street sweeper is in constant use from mid-February to October. According to the Highway Department, the machine will pay for itself in seven years. Knickerbocker explained, “What I’m trying to convey is that this piece of equipment is as integral as a snow plow. This is a sensible purchase, and it’s something that we need.” The motion was voted down.
Attendance at the reconvened Town Meeting was low, with less than 100 people in the BHS auditorium. That was in stark contrast to the almost-filled room for the April 2 Town Meeting. At that point, the turf field was still under consideration, and many turf field proponents had come to show support and comment.
The town operating budget of $29,536,242 and the capital plan of $1,140,000 will be taken to a machine vote on May 10. Polling stations will be open from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm.