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Waiting for state to make first move

NORTH CANAAN — A second try at holding the annual town meeting to consider the 2011-12 budget proposal was postponed last week as town officials awaited word on the state budget and how it will affect grants and income to the town.The town meeting to vote on local town and school spending was originally set for May 10. It was put off to May 17, when it was convened with about 20 people in attendance; a motion was approved to adjourn to May 31.The delay gives the Board of Finance an opportunity to adjust the budget to compensate for a significant drop in state funding, if necessary. The state Legislature last week was continuing to deal with a number of difficult budgeting decisions and negotiations. Unlike other regional towns, which have mostly approved their budgets for the coming fiscal year (which begins July 1), North Canaan is waiting because it receives a large percentage of its education budget from the state in the form of Education Cost Sharing (ECS). Finance board Chairman Louis Allyn said the town receives about $2.5 million against a budget of more than $4 million for North Canaan Elementary School.Once the budget is approved, the only way to increase revenue is by raising the mill rate.“We’re trying to avoid raising taxes,” First Selectman Douglas Humes said. “If we have to, after we hear from the state, we’ll go back and make budget cuts.”Total proposed spending is already at a decrease of just over 1 percent, or $212,000. That cushion would disappear if there is even a 10 percent cut to the Education Cost Sharing grant.Town officials are taking a wait-and-see approach. The town and state have until June 30 to enact their budgets. If either should fail to do so, they would continue to operate under current budget numbers for the coming year.Also awaiting taxpayer approval at the town meeting is renewal of a two-year contract for the resident state trooper program. Costs for that program that will increase by 9.6 percent to $79,190 in the new fiscal year.Allyn said uncertainty over revenues and taxes is compounded by the full 10-year revaluation of properties that will be conducted this year. Changes will be applied to tax bills beginning July 2012. It is difficult to say where the grand list (the assessed value of taxable property) will go. Assessments begin with the real estate market and recent property sales. Property owners who made improvements will also see an assessment increase. How much that aggregate will drive up the grand list, and possibly hold the mill rate down, remains to be seen.Another unknown quantity is the total of line items in the school budget for noncertified staff. That includes the school counselor, nurse, secretaries, custodians and teacher assistants. Principal Rosemary Keilty said that the two sides have been far apart on contractual issues, but union negotiations were set to go to mediation May 20. Keilty later reported a contract agreement was in place but would not be ratified before the May 31 town meeting.“Any increase would not be a drastic amount, and it may be a wash with a possible decrease to the insurance line,” Keilty said. “Three or four people are on the fence about taking health benefits. We’ve given them until June 1 to decide. That could be a significant savings.”If additional funding is needed for noncertified salaries, the school will have to go to the finance board for an appropriation.

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