Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon Democrats vote lesser budget cuts

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
May 24, 2006

VERNON - The Town Council on Tuesday approved a revised $71.51 million 2006-07 budget that cuts roughly $425,000 from a spending plan that voters overwhelmingly rejected at referendum May 9.

By a 7-2 vote, the Town Council voted to send the new budget to a June 6 referendum.

Republican Councilmen Jason L. McCoy and Bill F. Campbell voted against the budget, while Republican Daniel A. Champagne abstained.

Republicans Daniel E. Anderson and Christy N. Vale were absent from Tuesday's meeting.

The revised budget increases town spending by about $3.56 million or 5.24 percent.

Under the new spending plan, the town's tax rate would go from 35.79 mills to 37.35 mills, an increase of 1.56 mills.

The previously rejected budget would have increased the tax rate by 1.92 mills.

Before approving the revised budget, the Town Council narrowly approved the spending cuts, which are identical to the cuts proposed by Democratic Mayor Ellen L. Marmer on May 11, two days after voters shot down the original $71.94 million budget proposal for 2006-07.

Those cuts include reductions in Police Department supplies, office furniture, and the elimination of a new tractor for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Additional revenue, estimated at $40,000, is projected to come from increased fees at the waste transfer station. The $5 per vehicle fee remains the same, but a 10-entry punchcard now will cost $45 instead of $30.

Instead of approving Marmer's suggested cuts on May 11, Republican council members, who hold a 7-5 majority, directed all department heads to remove 1.5 percent from their budgets.

The department heads spent the past week-and-a-half retooling numbers and were prepared to present revised figures Tuesday night during what was expected to be a marathon budget session.

But several Republican council members were either absent or late, leaving Democrats in de-facto control of the council.

Democratic Councilwoman Pauline A. Schaefer moved to adopt Marmer's proposed spending cuts, and after roughly 30 minutes of discussion, and two failed Republican efforts to change the format of the deliberations and proposed cuts, the council voted to approve the reductions.

By the time that vote was taken, two more Republican council members arrived and the council was evenly split 5-5, allowing Marmer to break the tie in favor of the cuts.

"There has to be some responsibility as far as what we do in this community and I'm willing to take it on my shoulders," Marmer said before she cast the tie-breaking vote.

After the vote, Marmer immediately directed Finance Officer James L. Luddecke to fold the new figures into the proposed spending plan for next fiscal year.

The revised budget would increase general government spending from $23.07 million to $24.14 million.

Capital improvement spending would increase to $4.2 million from $3.04 million and Board of Education spending would go from $41.84 million to $43.17 million.

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

Responding to Democratic Councilwoman Marie A. Herbst's assertion that Republicans planned to be in the minority during Tuesday's meeting, McCoy, the deputy mayor, said some of the council members' schedules prohibited them from getting to the 6 p.m. meeting on time.

McCoy said Anderson was at a class and would have arrived at the meeting about 8 p.m. and Vale was out of state.

As for the new spending plan, McCoy said he would like to see the town hold a special town meeting to give officials a chance to hear from residents who have been voting against the budget.

And if the budget doesn't pass at the June 6 referendum, McCoy said, voters know that the next round of cuts would be devastating because department heads already have worked the numbers as part of their proposed 1.5 percent cut.

"You'll know what the next number is going to be," McCoy said.

Marmer urged all town officials and residents to drum up support for the revised budget proposal.

Had the 1.5 percent in spending cuts been adopted, Marmer said, the changes would have been significant, including the elimination of the police officer assigned to Vernon Center Middle School, and the elimination of training programs for land-use commission members.

School officials had warned that several teaching positions would have been lost and there was the possibility that Talcottville School could be closed if further cuts were necessary.

Marmer added that she didn't think time was wasted in making department heads rework their budgets.

"It showed all of us on the town side and the board side what real pitfalls we have to deal with if we actually did have the 1.5 percent cut across the board," Marmer said. "Ultimately, it is not a politicians' budget, it's a community budget."

The revised budget reduces the school system's proposed budget by $317,000.

This is roughly $48,000 less than the $365,000 in program cuts adopted Monday night by the school board.

Those cuts included the elimination of field trips, freshman sports, and the reduction of between eight and 12 paraprofessionals.

At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, the Town Council heard from school board President Catherine A. Rebai, several teachers, and students asking that the council refrain from making further cuts to the schools.

"Let's not be penny wise and pound foolish Vernonites," Rockville High School foreign language teacher Denise Neumaier told the council as she read a list of statistics relating to the impact of high school dropouts and under-education on the U.S. economy. "Our children's future is your future. Like it or not, the decisions we make as a town today will affect us all down the road."

School Superintendent Stephen C. Cullinan said the school system would wait for the outcome of the budget vote before proceeding with its recommendations to the school board on where to restore the $48,000.

"I'm just hopeful that the referendum does pass on the sixth," Cullinan said. "The consequences for the town and the Board of Education could be devastating."

©Journal Inquirer 2006