Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Council to take up $72.28 million proposal tonight

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
March 16, 2006

VERNON - Mayor Ellen L. Marmer is proposing a $72.28 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year, which calls for town spending to increase by 6.36 percent.

But some Town Council Republicans are not happy with the numbers or the way the budget was released.

The proposed budget, which was made available to Town Council members Wednesday evening, would increase town spending by $3.5 million over the present $67.95 million spending plan.

The budget, which includes all town and school spending, will eventually go to referendum.

A date for the vote has not been set.

Under the mayor's proposal, the general government budget would increase from $23.07 million to $24.19 million, an increase of $1.12 million or 4.86 percent.

Capital improvement spending is scheduled to increase by $1.54 million to $4.59 million.

Education spending would see a 3.96 percent increase, going from $41.84 million to $43.5 million, according to the proposed budget.

If the Town Council and voters approve the proposed budget, the town's tax rate would increase from 35.79 mills to 38.33 mills, an increase of 2.54 mills or 7.1 percent.

Under the proposed budget, a homeowner with a property assessed at $200,000 would pay $7,666 in property taxes during the 2006-07 fiscal year compared with $7,158 this year.

Marmer's plan calls for the town to raise $50.43 million in taxes during 2006-07, an increase of $4.05 million or 8.72 percent over the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

But unlike previous years, Marmer's proposed spending plan calls for the town to provide $100,000 worth of tax relief to elderly and disabled residents.

The new tax relief plan is expected to affect roughly $2.6 million in assessments.

Additional information about the new program was unavailable Thursday.

In developing the budget, Marmer said she asked department heads not to exceed 1 percent spending increases in non-salary accounts and to refrain from proposing new full-time positions that were not self-sustaining.

"This was a problematic request, when considering past budget reductions, but the expectation of extraordinary increases in energy costs, coupled with the need to replenish the capital improvement program, made this a necessity," Marmer wrote in her budget message to Town Council members. "The response from our departments was commendable."

Among the largest increases in the general government budget are $621,901 in added salaries, and $402,978 for increased energy costs, including electricity, lights, natural gas, and gasoline, Marmer said.

Those two factors account for more than 91 percent of the proposed general government spending increases.

A successful redesign of the town's medical insurance program resulted in a reduction of more than $213,000 in health insurance costs, Marmer said.

The proposed general government budget would increase the snow removal budget by $26,900, and the town's grant to the cash-strapped Rockville Public Library would increase by $32,000 to $250,000.

The proposed budget also fully funds the popular leaf pickup program, which proved to be a contentious issue during the 2004-05 budget process.

The capital improvement budget calls for the town to spend $485,607 on new equipment, including a leaf machine and three dump trucks for the Department of Public Works, and new vehicles for the fire marshal, senior citizens center, and a soon-to-be hired police captain.

The capital improvement budget also calls for more than $652,000 in spending for various town and school projects.

They include replacing the roofs at the Hartford Turnpike fire station and the Town Hall annex, reconstruction of a bridge on Vernon Avenue, and the first phase of an intermodal transportation center in downtown Rockville, the majority of which is being funded through a federal grant.

"The funding represents a unique opportunity for the town to expand upon its transportation program while simultaneously redefining downtown Rockville," Marmer wrote. "This project is a cornerstone in our efforts to bring outside developers to town in order to achieve a much needed revitalization in the area."

On the education side, Marmer's $43.5 million proposal for school spending reflects a $400,000 cut to the $43.9 million budget proposed by the Board of Education.

Although the mayor cannot tell school officials where to make their cuts, Marmer said in February that she expected the school system to be subject to the same constraints she placed on other town departments.

Enrollment in the school system stands at 3,941 and officials expect that number, which has trended downward in recent years, to increase slightly or remain stable, school officials said in February.

Officials expect that 43 additional students would be attending elementary schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to school budget documents.

It remains to be seen how voters will look upon the 2006-07 spending proposal.

Last year, voters needed four referendums before narrowly approving a spending plan that increased the tax rate by 0.46 mills.

Marmer's original 2005-06 proposal would have increased the tax rate by 1.34 mills.

But unlike last year, Marmer, a Democrat, was able to present her budget to a Town Council controlled by members of her own party.

This year will be different as Republicans hold a 7-5 majority.

And so far, the council's Republican leadership does not appear to be impressed.

Republican Deputy Mayor Jason L. McCoy said he was "very disappointed" in the proposed mill rate increase as well as the timetable for releasing the budget to the Town Council.

The budgets were made available to Town Council members at the police station about 8 p.m. Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the Town Council sits down at 7 tonight in the Vernon Senior Center to hear presentations from department heads.

The Town Council is expected to begin discussing possible changes to the budget on Saturday morning.

As of 9 a.m. today, only five of the 12 Town Council members had picked up their copies of the budget.

"I'm just surprised by the last minute nature of the production of this budget," said McCoy, who added that he hasn't had the opportunity to look at the spending plan yet.

As for the makeup of the council, McCoy said he expects Republicans to have a greater say in the final outcome of the proposed budget.

"All I can say was we were treated very poorly during the budget process last year in terms of our ability to go through and make reductions," McCoy said. "We will read through the budget, go through a thorough process, and made any reductions or additions, whatever they may be, and they are not going to be able to cram it down our throats again."

Republican Councilwoman Christy N. Vale said she couldn't comment on specific spending proposals because she hadn't had enough time to scrutinize the budget.

"I think we may have to do some changes to our meetings because we need time to look this over," said Vale, who added that she doesn't think a 2.54-mill increase in the tax rate is "going to fly."

Saying that she has not had a chance to review the budget, Democratic Council-woman Marie A. Herbst said she understands McCoy's and Vale's concerns about not getting the chance to thoroughly review the spending plan.

But Herbst added that Marmer likely has a good explanation for the timetable and the council has plenty of time to make any necessary adjustments to its meeting schedule.

"It's nothing to get excited over, we've got the time," Herbst said. "I'm sure, working together, the twelve of us can come up with some solution."

©Journal Inquirer 2006