One of Governor Lamont's public health emergency Executive Orders directs local municipal leaders to make options available for the public to inspect and comment on the budget remotely. This would involve posting the budget on town websites and allowing residents to submit comments on these fiscal plans by email. In an earlier order, Lamont gave local leaders an additional 30 days to adopt their budgets.
Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker says the Board of Finance will essentially become a City Council for just this budget year. The annual town budget meeting and the public hearing, which both typically draw about 130 people, and a referendum would draw more people into one place than is suggested by health officials. He noted that this is why the Connecticut presidential primary was postponed to June.
The Board of Finance has proposed an $80.7 million budget, a 3.49 percent increase over the current year. It's $48.2 million for the schools and $32.5 million on the municipal side. The tax rate would increase by 2.39 percent. This includes funding for an additional police officer and accounts for a rising school enrollment. The Police Department initially requested two new officers. The Board of Education's budget was trimmed by about $424,000.
Knickerbocker says some of the other spending costs is because the building department's workload has increased so much in the past few years that at one point they were three months behind in logging permits into the system. He noted that historically, in 1990 Bethel had 19 employees in the highway crew, while today there are 12, but the number of miles of road they maintain has gone up.
Bethel plans to hold a virtual public hearing where people can call into the meeting and voice their opinions. Residents are also encouraged to mail comments. Knickerbocker plans to mail out letters about the budget to every household. A budget presentation has been posted on the town’s website.
Bethel Action Committee founder Billy Michael called this public health crisis an opportunity for government to take away voter rights. He called it voter suppression and said will give free reign to increase spending, free of the control of the people that pay those taxes. The head of the tax watchdog group is calling for transparency. Michael says there have been years where referendum have been held into August so there's no need for elected officials to exploit the crisis.
Knickerbocker says there's no real savings with the schools being closed during this health crisis, noting there's extra cost associated with feeding kids at home, for the health department overtime and for the library, which has to pay hosting fees to make more material available online.