Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon budget vote Tuesday; officials urge approval

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
May 6, 2006

VERNON - Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to vote on a proposed $71.94 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year, which, if passed, would increase town spending by 5.86 percent.

And officials are hoping that this year's referendum process won't be a repeat of the past two years, in which voters went to the polls four times before approving spending plans for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 fiscal years respectively.

One difference in this year's budget is the political makeup of the town leaders who developed it.

While Democratic Mayor Ellen L. Marmer and a Democratic Town Council majority controlled the budget process during the past two years, this year's budget was the result of work by Marmer and a council controlled by a 7-5 Republican majority.

That council spent nearly seven hours on April 6 and April 7 making cuts to the spending plan originally proposed by Marmer in March. In all, the council shaved off $340,000 from Marmer's original spending proposal of $72.28 million.

The spending plan that will go before voters on Tuesday would increase town spending by nearly $4 million over the present fiscal year's $67.95 million budget.

Voting will occur between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. at Center 375 on the Hartford Turnpike.

When the council originally approved the budget during the early morning hours on April 7, the town's tax rate was expected to increase from 35.79 mills to 37.75 mills, an increase of 5.48 percent or 1.96 mills.

But revised state aid estimates, which are expected to deliver an extra $52,854 in state monies to the town, will result in a 0.04 mill reduction to the proposed increase.

Increase in proposed mill rate

As a result, the proposed mill rate now stands at 37.71 mills, an increase of 5.36 percent or 1.92 mills.

If the proposed budget passes, a resident with property assessed at $200,000 would pay $7,542 in property taxes for the 2006-07 fiscal year. Under the present fiscal year, that same homeowner would pay $7,158 in property taxes, an increase of $384.

But that mill rate increase could drop lower, depending on what town and school officials decide to do with a $317,200 increase in state aid for special education.

On Tuesday, council members peppered Finance Officer James M. Luddecke with questions about why that additional aid could not be used to offset the mill rate.

Although Luddecke said that money could not be added to the revenue side of the proposed budget, council members said they wanted to take a closer look in the coming days at using those funds, directly or indirectly, to further reduce the proposed mill rate increase.

Some tax relief offered

The council also recently gave its approval to a two-year pilot program that would provide some tax relief to elderly and disabled citizens who meet specific income guidelines.

Last year, voters narrowly approved a budget that raised the mill rate by 0.46 mills after rejecting higher tax increases three times in previous weeks.

Under the proposed 2006-07 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.

In order to educate voters on the budget, officials sent out a newsletter this week explaining how the budget is assembled and encouraging residents to contact them with any questions.

Speaking to the spending plan, Marmer has said that 90 percent of the proposed increases can be attributed to hikes in salary and energy costs.

And on Friday, Marmer repeated warnings that further cuts to the budget could impact services.

"If we have to cut again, there is going to be an impact that won't be retrievable," Marmer said Friday. "That is just reality. It is not my budget. It has never been my budget. It is a budget for our community."

The process of assembling the budget has been relatively peaceful, with a few verbal dustups between the two parties.

During the annual town meeting on April 25, Republican Deputy Mayor Jason L. McCoy said the vast majority of the spending increases are attributable to fixed costs such as salaries, energy, and debt service.

During the meeting, McCoy said residents needed to support the budget to ensure that municipal services would be maintained.

©Journal Inquirer 2006