Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council directs department heads to cut their own budgets

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
May 12, 2006

VERNON - The Town Council declined to adopt a revised 2006-07 budget Thursday night, instead opting to ask town department heads to cut their budgets by 1.5 percent.

Going into Thursday's meeting, the council was expected to make cuts to the $71.94 million budget, overwhelmingly defeated by voters at referendum Tuesday, in preparation for a May 23 referendum.

But saying they wanted to give department heads more control over spending reductions, Republican council members, who hold a 7-5 majority, sent the proposed spending plan back to department leaders for revisions.

"It's a good faith effort to try to respond," Republican Councilwoman Christy N. Vale said shortly before the vote. "Do I like it? No. But we've got to do what we've got to do."

Because of the time needed to revise the budget and submit a new plan to the Town Council, the next referendum will likely happen around the middle of June, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said after Thursday's meeting, which lasted roughly two hours and featured several recesses and a party caucus.

At the start of the meeting, Marmer presented the Town Council with $465,547 in spending cuts, which would have cut the proposed tax rate increase from 1.92 mills to 1.56 mills.

Those cuts would be made in equipment reductions in the Police Department, part-time wage cuts in the Parks and Recreation Department, the elimination of a new parks tractor, and a $317,000 reduction in the Board of Education budget, which town officials expect will be covered by increases in state assistance.

But at the beginning of Thursday's meeting, Board of Education President Catherine A. Rebai said the additional state money is reimbursement specifically for special education, and a reduction of that amount could mean reductions to other general areas of the school budget.

After caucusing for roughly 30 minutes, Republicans emerged with their own plan.

Republican Deputy Mayor Jason L. McCoy moved that each department budget be reduced by 1.4 percent and that department heads adjust their budgets to compensate for the loss.

That motion touched off a heated argument between McCoy and Marmer about the legality of the motion.

At one point, both Democratic Councilwoman Marie A. Herbst and Republican Councilman Mark S. Etre read from the Town Charter to argue that their side was correct.

Finally, Marmer took a recess to consult with Town Attorney Joseph D. Courtney by telephone.

Courtney told Town Administrator Laurence R. Shaffer that the council could not make blanket cuts without telling department heads where to make their reductions.

In response, McCoy made a motion to direct department heads to take 1.5 percent out of their budgets.

The motion passed on a 7-4 party-line vote. Democratic Councilwoman Connie Simon was absent.

After the vote, Marmer said she expects to hold an emergency meeting with department heads on Monday to rework their budgets.

A special Town Council meeting must be held before a revised budget can be sent to referendum.

Despite the vote, Shaffer said it might be impossible to cut 1.5 percent from every budget, given contractual and debt-service obligations.

In those cases, other departments might see larger cuts to make up the difference, Shaffer said.

"I appreciate what we need to do, but this isn't the fiscally responsible way to do it," Marmer said. "People need to know what they are losing."

On Tuesday, voters rejected the proposed $71.94 million budget by a 2,084-to-1,028 margin.

©Journal Inquirer 2006