Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Mayor wants May referendum for proposed budget

By:Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
March 17, 2006

VERNON - Mayor Ellen L. Marmer's proposed $72.28 million spending plan for next fiscal year could go before voters as soon as May 2.

The Democratic mayor said she would like her proposed budget to go to referendum the week following the town's annual town meeting, which will be held April 25.

On Thursday, Marmer formally presented her proposed spending plan to members of the Town Council who will spend the next few weeks going through the budget and making changes of their own.

The mayor's proposed budget calls for town spending to increase by $3.5 million, or 6.36 percent.

Marmer has proposed that government spending be increased from $23.07 million to $24.19 million, an increase of $1.12 million, or 4.86 percent.

Spending on capital projects sees a 3.96 percent increase in the proposal, going from $3.04 million to $4.59 million, while education spending goes from $41.84 million to $43.5 million, under her plan.

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.

If the 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 property assessed at $200,000 would pay $7,666 in property taxes during the 2006-07 fiscal year, which begins July 1, compared to $7,158 this year.

"Discussing taxes and putting budgets out for referendum is like asking someone on death row how they feel about the death penalty," Marmer said. "Asking people to vote on taxes and tax increases presents a similar dilemma."

Marmer said her proposed budget represents the basic needs of the community and not "wants" or "desires." She pointed out that 91 percent of the increased general government spending is going toward contractual items such as salaries and escalating energy costs.

Of the $1.54 million proposed increase to the town's capital projects budget, more than $740,000 is going toward debt service to pay for road and school construction projects approved by voters during the past 18 months. That figure also includes more than $105,000 to pay for last year's Republican-backed initiative to lease several dump trucks and a refuse packer, Marmer said.

Originally, the council was expected to review and make changes to some budget items during Thursday's budget workshop. But at the request of several members, the council voted to adjust its schedule to allow members more time to scrutinize the spending plan.

The council's Republican leadership expressed concern Thursday that they would be expected to make changes to the budget without first getting the opportunity to sit and look over the plan closely.

The proposed budget was first made available to council members at about 8 p.m. Wednesday, and as of mid-morning on Thursday the majority of members had not picked up their copies of the spending plan.

Republican Christy N. Vale apologized to the town's financial staff for wanting to adjust the budget workshop schedule, but added that the changes were necessary.

"We have new people on this council, and we have some old people who need a little more time to do this each year,"

Vale said. "We need more time to do this correctly."

After Thursday's meeting, Republican Deputy Mayor Jason L. McCoy said he was pleased that his concerns were listened to.

In an effort to better organize budget workshops, McCoy said, each member of the Republican caucus would be given a section of the budget and would be in charge of making suggested changes for that section during meetings.

Republicans hold a 7-5 majority on the council.

Although he hasn't had the opportunity to review specific components of the budget, McCoy said, he wasn't optimistic that voters would approve a 2.54 mill increase.

McCoy said the proposed tax increase is aggravated by the fact that the approved multi-million dollar road and school projects would continue to increase the tax rate during the next several years.

"We need to take that into account when we are budgeting this year," McCoy said. "I don't think the people are going to vote yes on that."

The tenor of Thursday's meeting was vastly different from the end of the 2005-06 budget process, which became contentious and required four referendums before voters settled on a $67.95 million budget that increased the tax rate by 0.46 mills.

Democrat Marie A. Herbst said she was pleased by the cooperation between council members in adjusting the meeting schedule to allow for more time to look at the budget.

"I think it's a good start," Herbst said. "Let's hope we finish this way."

©Journal Inquirer 2006