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How our town budgets are set and why it’s worth paying attention

Many articles in recent and future weeks in The Lakeville Journal are about the budget process.

Each town in the state has to put together two budgets each year, one for municipal spending and one for education spending.

The municipal budget covers town business expenses that range from the salaries for town officials to the cost of sand and salt for the roads in winter.

Education budgets

The education budgets cover the K-8 schools in each of the six Region One School District towns. Those towns are Canaan (known as Falls Village), Cornwall, Kent, North Canaan, Salisbury and Sharon.

Each town has its own board of education and its own school for students in grades kindergarten to eight. Certain costs for those schools are mandated by the state and by teacher contracts.

Those six towns share a regional high school (Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village), which has its own board of education. The schools also share regional education services such as special education and the regional administrators’ salaries (including for example the superintendent and assistant superintendent and the business manager).

The regional budget is generally proposed first and each of the towns includes their share of the total cost in their own education budget. The share is determined by the number of students their town sent to the high school on the first day of October in the prior year (so the 2021-22 budget will be based on the student population in October 2020).

Hearings and a referendum

The Region One budget is voted on by all six towns in a referendum early in May, after a public hearing in April. This year’s vote will be on May 4, see story this page.

Towns hold their own public hearings, usually in April, and then vote on their municipal and education budgets in May (usually after the Region One referendum). Salisbury has already voted on its budgets, see the story on this week’s Town pages.

Immediately after the town meetings, finance boards set the mill rate for the new fiscal year.

Some towns vote on their education and municipal spending plans as one budget; other towns vote on them as two separate budgets. 

The boards of finance that present the final budgets to the taxpayers are all volunteers.

The selectmen are on salary; the first selectman is considered a full-time worker but the other two selectmen work part time and earn lower salaries.

The boards of education are made up of all volunteers.

What is
a mill rate?

Once the budgets have been accepted, the boards of finance meet to set the town’s mill rate.

The mill rate determines property taxes in Connecticut towns. A mill represents $1 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value. A 15-mill tax rate would translate into a tax bill of $1,500 for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000.

The grand list is the total assessed value of all taxable property in a town.

Properties are assessed at 70 percent of their appraised value.

Because of the COVID-19 quarantine, the state last year gave towns a one-month extension on the due date for their budgets, and towns had the authority to skip the usual public hearing and town budget meeting requirements. This year again, towns have until May 20. 

This year, most towns are trying to have hearings and town meetings, and to make them available on Zoom. Some towns will offering the hearings online but the selectmen will vote to approve the budget, instead of having a public town meeting. Some meetings are in person. Most towns will post their budget plans and the schedule of online public hearings and online town meetings on their websites. The Lakeville Journal also publishes hearing and meeting dates in articles on the budget process for each town.

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