Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Council OKs $72 million budget; taxes would rise 5.48%

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
April 7, 2006

VERNON - After nearly seven hours of deliberations that went into the wee hours of the morning, the Town Council narrowly approved a $71.94 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

The spending plan, which passed after Mayor Ellen L. Marmer broke a 5-5 tie, increases town spending by 5.86 percent over the current year's $67.95 million budget. It also reduces the $72.28 million budget proposed by Marmer last month by nearly $340,000.

The plan, which includes all town and school spending, now will be presented to residents during an April 25 public hearing and town meeting before going to referendum May 9.

Rather than make budget adjustments over a series of meetings, the council elected to do the lion share of its changes in one night.

This made for a lengthy session, which started with a discussion about state aid with the town's legislative delegation, and ended hours later after the council had considered spending cuts ranging from several hundred dollars to more than $270,000.

In the end, the council deadlocked on whether to approve the final spending plan, with Republican Daniel E. Anderson joining Democrats Marie A. Herbst, Connie Simon, Mary A. Oliver, and Bill Fox on the dissenting side.

Republicans Mark S. Etre and Pauline A. Schaefer left the meeting at about 10:30 p.m.

Although she expressed misgivings about the budget's impact on the town's fiscal future, Marmer decided to throw her support to the five Republicans who cast votes in favor of the spending plan.

Under the newly approved budget, government spending increases from $23.07 million to $24.2 million. Capital improvement spending increases by $1.21 million to $4.25 million. And education spending increases from $41.84 million to $43.48 million.

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

The town's tax rate under the budget goes up from 35.79 mills to 37.75 mills, an increase of 1.96 mills, or 5.48 percent. Marmer's original plan called for the tax rate to rise by 2.54 mills, or 7.1 percent.

If voters approve the proposed budget, a homeowner with property assessed at $200,000 would pay $7,550 in property taxes during the 2006-07 fiscal year as compared to $7,158 this year - that's $392 more.

The lengthy and sometimes tedious process of making changes to the budget forced council Republicans to suggest a variety of small and large changes in a number of different departments.

One of the largest reductions as compared to Marmer's plan was a $100,000 cut in the town's snow-removal budget. Despite objections from Democrats, the measure passed on a 5-4 party-line vote, with Republican Daniel A. Champagne abstaining.

The town's snow-removal budget for the current year is running a deficit of more than $16,000, and any shortfalls in the 2006-07 snow-removal budget likely would come out of the town's unappropriated fund balance.

Council Republicans also decided to remove nearly $277,000 for dump trucks for the town's Parks and Recreation Department and a recycling vehicle. It did, however, leave in about $29,000 to be used to lease a dump truck for the town's Public Works Department.

Council members also reduced Marmer's appropriation for the Rockville Public Library by $15,000, bringing the town's contribution to $235,000, which still is a $17,000 increase over the current year's earmark. Before the council's deliberations, library officials pleaded with town leaders to maintain the amount of money set aside by Marmer.

The council also reduced Board of Education spending by $50,000 shortly after learning that the school system should receive more state aid for special education.

Republicans also made several revenue adjustments at Center 375 at Hartford Turnpike to decrease the town's tax rate.

The center, which is rented out by the town to the Indian Valley YMCA, a doctor's office, and the town's Public Works Department, serves as a revenue generating "enterprise fund" for the town.

Most of the budget adjustments passed without lengthy debate and the tenor of the session was largely peaceful, but still tense at moments. During a recess from the meeting, opposing sides traded barbs at each other with each side claiming the other was shutting it out of the process.

Marmer, a Democrat, said there were areas of her proposed budget where spending cuts could have been made without jeopardizing the town's financial future and not all of those areas had been touched on by Republicans.

But when told of the mayor's comment, Republicans Jason L. McCoy and Christy N. Vale became incensed with Vale implying that Marmer was playing a game of "hide and seek" with council Republicans.

"If she's got fat in there, she should be telling us," McCoy said. "That's just plain wrong. This just defines the relationship."

But Marmer said she didn't tell Republicans about areas of the budget that could be cut because they didn't ask her.

As for the budget itself, Marmer expressed concern that if the town had to dip into its fund balance to cover shortfalls next year, it would have a negative effect on the town's bond rating. As a result, it would increase the payback cost of the millions of dollars in bonded funds approved by voters during the past 18 months.

"The majority of the additions and subtractions are fiscally unsound," said Marmer, who, nevertheless, added that she prays the budget needs only one referendum to pass. "I'd hate to see what the repercussions are to programs and services if we have to go past one referendum. We are on dangerous ground financially."

But Republicans said they tried carefully to scrutinize the budget in order to come up with a spending plan that would be palatable to voters.

"We've just tried to squeeze every penny out of every account we possibly could," said Vale, who complimented Marmer on her edict that town department heads not request more than 1 percent increases in spending in non-salary and contractual budgets.

Among the largest increases in Marmer's proposed budget were $621,901 in additional salaries and $402,978 for increased energy costs. Those amounts accounted for 91 percent of the proposed government spending increases.

With the proposed 2006-07 budget in hand, voters will get a chance to have their say in little more than a month.

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 budget would have increased the tax rate by 1.34 mills.

Although he voted against the budget this morning because he disagreed with some of the Republicans' cuts, Fox said he hoped voters would approve the spending plan.

But Republican Daniel E. Anderson broke ranks with his party because, "Two mills is just too high," Anderson said, adding that he doesn't believe the cuts are enough. But, "It's up to the voters. It's in their hands at this point."

©Journal Inquirer 2006