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Preston plans in-person budget process in May and June

Preston — A year after budget decisions were left to the Board of Finance in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, town leaders are preparing for an in-person public hearing, town meeting and budget referendum in late May and June.

The Board of Finance scheduled a special meeting for 7:30 p.m. Thursday — remote access — to review the proposed $4 million 2021-22 town government budget and the proposed $12.6 million school budget.

No dates have been set for the budget public hearing, town meeting and referendum. But Gov. Ned Lamont is lifting most restrictions on in-person gatherings starting May 19, which should clear the way for Town Hall and in-person meetings to reopen. Town Hall has been accessible by appointment only since March 2020, and meetings have been held online or by teleconference.

The governor’s executive orders last year allowed for cities and towns to forego budget hearings, town meetings and referendums for budgets, ordinances and spending votes, allowing elected boards to approve measures.

One of the final acts by the Board of Selectmen under Lamont’s executive orders drew fire from the Board of Finance on Thursday. Selectmen voted unanimously at a special meeting April 15 to approve an ordinance converting the town treasurer position from elected to appointed, effective with the Nov. 2 election. Hours and salary remain to be determined.

Board of Finance member and former longtime First Selectman Robert Congdon strongly criticized the quick action by the selectmen without consulting the Board of Finance, which must approve the treasurer’s proposed budget.

“Certainly, it deserved a public hearing and a town meeting,” Congdon told First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier at Thursday’s Board of Finance meeting. “We talk about transparent government. This is a farse.”

Allyn-Gauthier said selectmen had to act quickly using Lamont’s executive orders, because the town faced a May 6 deadline for providing paperwork to the Secretary of the State’s Office on the positions to be on the ballot for the Nov. 2 election.

She defended the move, saying converting to an appointed treasurer brings stability to an increasingly complex position. Current 20-year veteran Treasurer Susan Nylen plans to retire when she completes her term in November.

“Bob, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Allyn-Gauthier said to Congdon.

Finance board Chairman John Moulson said he did consult with Allyn-Gauthier about the conversion and agreed with the move.

“I do like the idea of it going to a town meeting, but I also do approve of it going this route,” Moulson said.

Allyn-Gauthier said the plan is to reopen town offices and meetings after May 19 if COVID-19 statistics continue to trend in the right direction. She said Thursday about 50% of Preston residents have received at least the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, about 10% below state average, but more than 90% of residents aged 75 and older have been vaccinated, about 7% above the state average.

Allyn-Gauthier is working with school Superintendent Roy Seitsinger and the town fire departments on possible meeting space. The larger lower-level Town Hall meeting room could hold some meetings, with masks still required.

Larger meetings likely would be held at the Preston Plains Middle School or Preston Veterans’ Memorial School. On nights where there are multiple meetings, some boards and commissions could be moved to the Preston City or Poquetanuck fire houses, Allyn-Gauthier said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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