Fourth budgets passes, finally
By Jason Rowe
VERNON - Nearly four months after the Town Council began working on a 2006-07 budget, voters at referendum Thursday approved a $70.7 million spending plan by 222-votes.
By a 1,667 to 1,445 margin, voters approved the new budget, which had been rejected by residents at three previous referendum votes, beginning in early May.
More than 54 percent of the 3,074 voters who cast ballots Thursday voted to approve the budget.
Roughly 20.4 percent of voters eligible to cast ballots Thursday participated in the referendum.
Thursday's vote brings an end to a long, and sometimes tedious process, which saw the Town Council make more than $1.5 million in cuts during a series of special meetings, some of which went into the early morning hours.
It was the third year in a row that the town's budget required four referendum votes to win approval.
Town officials were visibly thrilled when the results were announced shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m.
Republican Councilwoman Christy N. Vale and Democratic Councilwoman Marie A. Herbst embraced as other officials cheered and offered congratulations.
Reacting to Thursday's results, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said she was "proud as punch" of the voters who participated in the fourth referendum, which occurred at a time when many people are on vacation or concentrating on other summer activities.
In fact, the town reported 63 absentee ballot returns, a number that is significantly higher than the 15 to 25 ballots that are typically requested during a budget referendum, officials said.
The majority of absentee voters, 49, voted in favor of the budget.
"I've never been prouder than right now to be mayor of this town," Marmer said. "People in this community rallied and really understood what was at stake and voted this budget up."
With Thursday's budget passage, the town is no longer operating on a 90-day provisional budget, Finance Officer James M. Luddecke said Thursday night.
Because the town began the fiscal year on July 1 without a budget in place, the temporary-spending plan had to be used to maintain town services.
The newly approved budget coincides with a tax rate adopted by the Town Council on June 27.
That 36.73 mill rate represents an increase of 0.94 mills or 2.63 percent over the present fiscal year.
After the vote, Vale said she was relieved by the results.
"I don't know what we were going to do next," Vale said. "But it wasn't going to be good."
As voters continued to reject proposed budgets during the past two months, the Town Council continued to make cuts.
Several pieces of heavy equipment fell victim to the budget process, along with funding to local non-profit organizations, including the Rockville Public Library, which eliminated Saturday hours during the summer.
The town has also deferred the hiring of a new assistant town planner and economic development coordinator to assist Town Planner Neil S. Pade.
As a result, Pade's office will be closed to the public on Wednesdays to give him the opportunity to catch up on paperwork.
The school system also fell victim to the cuts, with officials having to eliminate between 8 and 12 teaching assistants from the district's school buildings.
Textbook purchases and freshman sports also fell victim to the cuts.
And school officials still must figure out how to cut an additional $25,000 from their budget, said David Kemp, a Republican who co-chairs the Board of Education's budget steering committee.
"I'm relieved that it got passed at this stage," Kemp said. "I'm disappointed that it did not pass sooner."
Not everyone was happy about the results of Thursday's referendum.
Vernon Taxpayer Association members James M. Hoover and Joseph Grabinski said they were disappointed with the results and theorized that voters likely became tired of repeatedly going back to the polls.
Grabinski, a former mayor, said the taxpayer group would continue pushing for town officials to hold the line on salaries, which are a driving force in budget increases.
"We have some new people in the taxpayer's association who are real numbers people and they are up in arms," Hoover said. "They are gong to have to stop spending like they are kids in a candy store."
But Herbst took issue with Hoover and Grabinski's assessment of Thursday's results.
Herbst credited the budget's passage to voters who took the time to understand the spending plan and the real effect on their tax bills.
"I think what really happened is they finally understood the crisis we were in," said Herbst, who added that she would like to see the town beef up outreach with voters about budget issues. "I really don't believe it was because they were beaten down. I think people got the information they needed."
©Journal Inquirer 2006