“We’re just trying to get back where we were in the 1970s,” Highway Department Director Peter Hill told the selectmen.

“Back when I started, early 1970s, we had 20, 21 truck driver-laborers.”

The budget shows the Highway Department now has 16 driver-laborers among a staff of just under 28 — 27.75 full-time positions, also including mechanics, brush attendants, foremen, office staff, and the director. Payroll for the department of nearly 28 runs at $2,175,000 and, without any added positions, is projected to rise to $2,199,000.

Adding four driver-laborers would cost another $355,828, based on starting salaries of $57,000 each and another $32,000 each for benefits — which assumes they’d have “family” medical plans.

These costs aren’t in the department’s projected 1.26% budget increase, from $2,952,000 to $2,989,000, that shows in the selectmen’s budget. They were cut by First Selectman Rudy Marconi as part of a $1,062,000 sweep through the town budget that included implementing a “no new positions” assumption, before the document was presented to the Board of Selectmen. Marconi’s solo round of cuts got the town departments budget down to $36,440,000, for a 2.37% increase.

Together with schools Superintendent Karen Baldwin’s proposed 4.83% school budget increase, the proposed spending projects to a tax increase of over 4%. By the end of the selectmen’s first week of review — Feb. 5 to 8 — some “putbacks” had bumped up the town-side spending increase from 2.37% to 2.43%. And those, combined with further reductions in state revenue anticipated after the governor’s budget presentation — which has yet to go through the legislature — pushed the projected tax increase up from 4.05% at the start of the week to 4.75% by the end.

State your case

In the selectmen’s weeklong preliminary budget review, the board gave department heads a chance to make a case for their requests — even those already cut by Marconi.

“For the last six years, highway has come before the Board of Selectmen to request additional staff,” Hill’s budget request states. “To an already busy and burdened department, the solution has been to hire workers into part-time positions.”

Part-timers are often gone shortly after they were trained — due to a federal 120-day limit on what can be considered “seasonal” positions.

“By the time part-time workers’ skills were assessed and training performed, they had to be let go because their work hours maxed out,” the request says. “Hiring part-time help for this department has failed.”

Decision time

The selectmen expect to make their budget decisions during another week of nightly meetings scheduled to run Monday, March 5, to Thursday, March 8, with a Saturday, March 10, meeting also on the schedule.

Both the selectmen’s town budget and the Board of Education’s school budget will then go on to the Board of Finance, which has a public hearing scheduled for Monday, March 26, and then starts its deliberations aimed at putting a town-and-school budget proposal before voters in May.