Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon voters reject budget; Revaluation phase-in adopted

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
May 2, 2007

VERNON - Following recent trends, voters overwhelmingly rejected the Town Council's proposed $74.7 million budget by a margin of 2 to 1 Tuesday, with 2,246 opposed and 900 voting in favor.

According to election officials, 20.8 percent of registered voters came out to cast their ballots.

After hearing the news of the defeated spending plan, the Town Council voted along party lines to phase in the tax impact of revaluation over the next three years.

"This is just a difficult time, and reval has muddied the waters," Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said after the votes were tallied.

"I don't know how to separate the two and we're discovering it's a very difficult concept to understand," Marmer said, adding that phasing in the tax impact of revaluation won't help anyone as the mill rate would still need to be raised to fund the budget.

Angry taxpayers, upset over revaluation that will have all homeowners paying more in property taxes July 1, have said they won't accept a budget that is more than 3 percent over last year's spending.

"It's clear that people are not happy with spending," Republican Town Councilman Daniel E. Anderson said after learning of the budget's defeat. Cutting it to 3 percent "should be our goal, but I'm not sure if we can get there."

The defeated package has been cut by the Town Council from the mayor's initial 7 percent increase to 5.7 percent, or $4.03 million over this year's $70.7 million budget.

Parents of school children tried to lobby for the budget's passage, saying too much has been cut in recent years from education.

"The Town Council needs to seek long-term solutions to increase the tax base so we don't have to fight to get the budget approved every year," said former Councilman Tom DiDio, Democratic Town chairman and co-chairman of PASS - Parents Advocating for Schools and Services.

Council members will head back to the drawing board Monday, and begin retooling the spending plan in the hopes it will survive the next referendum vote, scheduled for May 15.

In the last three years, it took four referendum votes to pass a budget.

Republican Deputy Mayor Jason McCoy said the spending plan was "bound to go down."

Now we're "going to fix it like we have done for the last three years," McCoy said, adding "it would be a lot better if we were able to work together on this."

Anderson said that council members might have to sacrifice most of the capital improvement plan, roadwork, and equipment leases.

In the meantime, Republican members are hoping that a phase-in of revaluation will help stave off the shift in the tax burden from commercial to residential taxpayers, and make the budget more palatable to property owners.

In October 2006, during the real estate boom, all property in town was assessed for revaluation, with some properties increasing in value as much as 59 percent.

"Everybody's taxes are going up unless they live in an apartment and own a car," Town Assessor David Wheeler said, adding the only question is how much and how soon.

DiDio believes that phase-in will actually hurt some people as it helps others.

But Anderson thought the plan had merit, saying: "I think phase-in will help soften the blow," particularly for older residents on fixed incomes.

But trying to get exact, simple answers to that question was difficult.

"Who does it help and who does it hurt?" Councilman Bill F. Campbell asked Wheeler and Finance Director Jim Luddecke.

Those living in older, more modest homes were hit hardest as their property values increased sharply, both town officials said.

Wheeler told council members that a phase-in would benefit those people.

The owners of newer, larger, and more expensive homes could wind up paying more under phase-in, however, as they did not see their values increase as dramatically, Wheeler said.

Some living in newly built, age restricted housing for older adults might find themselves hurt by a phase-in, Democratic councilwoman Marie Herbst countered.

"I don't want to phase in anything that is not fair or equitable to everyone," she added.

Risley Road resident James McIntosh, who built his house nine years ago, said he would pay more taxes under a phase-in while his father Richard, who lives in the Welles Country Village - a private housing complex for people over 60 that opened in 1979 - would benefit.

All seven Republican council members voted for the phase-in. Democrat Bill Fox opposed it. Democrats Herbst, Polly Schaefer, and Connie Simon abstained.

©Journal Inquirer 2007