Citizens' Forum on Vernon budget reflects a community struggling to keep pace
By Annie Gentile
VERNON — Two previous budget proposals overwhelmingly shot down by voters at the May 9 and June 6 referendums prompted the mayor and Town Council to hold a Citizens' Forum on Thursday, June 8, at the Vernon Senior Center. Mayor Ellen Marmer stressed that if a budget is not passed at the next referendum, the fiscal year will run out, and the town will be placed in fiscal jeopardy.
Before opening the forum to public comment, Marmer beseeched the standing-room- only crowd to pass the next budget proposal to maintain services in town, keep the town progressive and to protect property values.
"Let there be no mistake about it, we're down to bone level, guys," Marmer said.
Public discussion, at times contentious, depicted a broad cross-section of residents who were struggling with their own "bone level" concerns about balancing education and services with the ever-rising demands on (heir wallets. Their comments outlined the difficult task set before the Town Council.
"If I can't make the [property tax] payment in January or July, there is no point to vote 'Yes,'" said Eileen Miller, addressing the council. "We do not have it.
"Let there be no mistake about it, we're down to bone level, guys."
You are literally driving us out of our homes," she said.
Comments from other residents echoed Miller's view.
"The middle class is disappearing," said Orchard Street resident James Tupponce. "We all have our own budgets. If you can't afford your own bills, why would you vote to increase your expenses?"
"I don't want to vote 'No' to be spiteful," said Tanya Merrow of Grove Street. "I can't afford to do it. I need to be able to afford [the tax increase] in my family budget."
Several residents voiced their disapproval of a suggestion made by former Mayor Joe Grabinski in other venues to cut wages rather than programs in the school system by moving to a part-time teaching staff.
"I am not against education," said Grabinski, "unless you're going to bleed the people dry." He said that his suggestions were simply a matter of being realistic. Grabinski further argued that it will not cost the town that much to extend the budgeting process beyond the June 30 end-of-fiscal-year limit. "You never let time be your enemy," he said. "It's a prime rule of negotiation."
For other residents, however, the two previously-rejected budgets were met with disappointment. "It feels like reproach," said Rockville High School student Mara Dauphin. Dauphin expressed concern that advanced placement (AP) courses might be eliminated at RHS. "Why is our education less worthwhile than the generations before me?" she asked.
Her father, Bill Dauphin, later reiterated his daughter's concerns. "AP courses are the gold standard of high school education," he said. "I implore all of you to vote 'Yes.'"
Resident Elissa Blanchard implored
"I see many advocates for the Board of Education, but you can't cut public safety either."
the council to be careful where they cut when it came to the education side of the budget, adding that she had a wonderful educational experience growing up in Vernon and wanted to be sure her own children would get the same quality education she had received. "We will find a way to pay our taxes," Blanchard said.
"We need to take care of our future," added Gottier Drive resident Phyllis Winkler . "Our children are our future."
Chief of Police Rudolf Rossmy said that if cuts must be made somewhere besides the schools, he hoped that the police department's budget would not be decreased. "I see many advocates for the Board of Education, but
"The property tax is not only regressive, it's absurd."
you can't cut public safety either," Rossmy said. Rossmy said the police force was operating with only four to seven officers at any given time policing a community of 30,000. He asked the council, when making future cuts, to be sure to spread them across the board and take into account the realties of public safety.
Several residents directed their frustration not at town leadership, but at the state of Connecticut and the need for property tax reform and the elimination of unfunded mandates.
"The property tax is not only regressive, it's absurd," said Mike Winkler, saying residents need to lobby for change in the tax structure.
Rainbow Trail resident and VCMS teacher Deborah Hefferen said that because of salary and benefits issues, there is a high teacher turnover rate in Vernon, resulting in a negative impact on education. Hefferen said the Vernon school district has been cited for lack of progress by the "No Child Left Behind" unfunded mandate.
Timber Lane resident John Machung suggested possible areas for savings, including evaluating health care coverage costs to determine if money might be saved by combining health, dental, and prescription premiums, or if they might save by bidding them out separately. He also suggested the town look at saving money by evaluating a possible duplication of services. His suggestions prompted a reply from Town Finance Officer Jim Luddeke that outlined the town's continued efforts to keep a lid on both health care and administrative expenses.
Following the forum, the Town Council slashed another $675,000 from the previously revised budget.
The new proposed budget will move to referendum on Tuesday, June 20.