Angry voters pack budget hearing
By Kym Soper
VERNON - Discontent filled the room at Center 375 on Tuesday night as about 100 residents - upset over revaluation, cuts to education, and soaring taxes - turned out for the annual town budget meeting.
For angry taxpayers, a 3 percent increase over this fiscal year's spending is about all they'll accept.
Parents of school children, meanwhile, cited education as the town's main selling point, and protested further cuts would weaken an already stressed system.
And nearly everyone who spoke expressed grief over revaluation and how much their property taxes will rise as a result.
The $74.7 million proposed budget increases spending by 5.7 percent, or $4.03 million, over this year's $70.7 million budget. Of that total, $44.5 million is for school spending.
The mayor's original proposal initially called for a 7 percent increase, but the Town Council trimmed the spending package by nearly $1 million, and the tax rate needed now to fund the budget is 27.52 mills.
Even though the mill rate is low, homeowners will face a hefty tax increase - about $800 annually for most - due to revaluation and a shift in the tax burden from commercial and industrial properties to residential.
It's that shift that has the Town Council considering a phase-in approach to revaluation over the next three to five years. A decision on that won't be made until next week.
No action could be taken at Tuesday's town meeting, which was a public hearing meant for comment only.
About 100 people turned out for the event, with members of both the Taxpayers Association and the newly formed PASS, Parents Advocating for Schools and Services, supplying many of the speakers.
According to town documents, only 20 people showed up for the same townwide meeting last year.
Vernwood Drive resident William J. Smith was one of the first to speak and said he was repeating the same message he gave last year.
"If property taxes go up much more, I'm out of here," Smith said.
Skyrocketing property taxes are driving out the elderly who can no longer afford to remain in Vernon, said Smith, who urged the council to adopt a phase-in approach to revaluation.
James M. Hoover, a Trout Stream Drive resident and president of the Vernon Taxpayer's Association, said he heard a rumor that the council called for a referendum to gauge public reaction.
"Inflation is about 3 percent, and that's about how much people will tolerate" in a spending increase, he predicted.
Alan Sauer of Grant Street echoed the sentiment.
"A 6 percent increase is twice what I got for a raise this year," Sauer said. "We have to prioritize and make choices with the resources we've got."
Tom Didio, Democratic town chairman and co-chairman of PASS, said seniors are not the only ones affected by the budget, as youth, jobs, and businesses are hurt when deep cuts are made to keep taxes palatable.
Didio criticized Republican's characterization of the budget as a "spending spree," and suggested a phase-in of revaluation would actually hurt more people than it would help.
Bill Dauphin of Olive Lane also pushed for a yes vote on the budget, saying higher property values are more desirable, and along with schools and services, are what people look for when they relocate.
"The town budget is an investment in all our futures," he said. "It's not flushing money down the toilet."
The crowd seemed to be split evenly on the subject of cuts.
Still, Michael Tobin, a retired college professor who advocated for passage, expects the worse - more than one referendum vote. Last year, it took four to pass a budget.
"I expect that now the vote-no signs will start springing up on the lawns with the daffodils," the Tunnel Road resident told the gathering. "Don't let those no signs sway you. Get the information yourself."
The budget goes to referendum on May 1, when votes will be cast from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Center 375, 375 Hartford Turnpike.
©Journal Inquirer 2007