Preston - The Board of Finance finalized preliminary town and school budgets Wednesday and approved a five-year capital plan that still could be changed next week when members review a proposed nearly $500,000 school security upgrade.
The finance board voted unanimously to approve a preliminary $10.6 million 2013-14 school budget using revised numbers provided by Superintendent John Welch at the meeting. The new total is a 1.86 percent, or $193,644, increase. The board's original proposed budget was $10.9 million.
Finance board Chairman Jerry Grabarek recommended approving the budget as presented and bringing it to a public hearing before making adjustments. Board member Norman Gauthier said the budget is too high but agreed to wait for public comment before making changes.
Grabarek said much of the cost increase is for salaries, up 3.1 percent, and special education, up 20 percent.
For the past five years, the school budget has been flat-funded at about $10.4 million, and yet the board returned surplus funding of about $500,000 over that time to the town, including $250,000 last year. Welch said he expects to have a surplus this year as well.
Finance board member Andrew Bilodeau suggested the new budget could have a built-in surplus as well. Welch objected, saying he just learned of recent reductions in special education tuition that cut about $175,000 from the budget and gave those numbers to the finance board. He said the budget contains "variables beyond our control and variables we cannot predict."
Discussion over salary increases dominated the town budget deliberations. First Selectman Robert Congdon proposed a $3.4 million budget, a 1.4 percent increase over this year's budget. The budget includes 3 percent increases for town employees.
Some finance board members objected, saying the federal cost of living increases have been set at 1.7 percent.
Congdon opposed the suggested cuts, saying the finance board was "counting paper clips." The board agreed to send the budget as presented to residents at a public hearing, reserving the option of making future cuts.
Congdon said town employees face increased costs mandated by the state to their retirement contributions. He said much of the 3 percent raise would be "wiped out" by those increases.
He said town employees do not have a unionized bargaining unit, "and that's worth $15,000 in a heartbeat."
The board did not recommend public hearing and town meeting dates for the budget. It also did not set the proposed tax rate, preferring to wait as long as possible for changes to state revenues.
Separate from the town and school budget review, the finance board approved a $1.7 five-year capital improvement plan that includes $750,000 for two new fire trucks, $110,000 for air conditioning for Preston Plains Middle School and $270,000 for three plow trucks.
The plan could change next Wednesday, when the finance board meets with the Board of Education to review the proposed security improvement plan. Congdon suggested at least $50,000 of that plan should be done within the next year.
A public hearing on the capital plan will be held April 4. A town meeting is scheduled for April 11 and a referendum is scheduled for April 23.