Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon's budget cuts continue tonight

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
May 7, 2007

VERNON - The Town Council is set to make more cuts to spending tonight in its proposed $74.7 million budget, which failed miserably at the polls last week, rejected by voters in a 2-1 margin.

The defeated spending package was first trimmed by the Town Council from the mayor's initial proposal of a 7 percent increase, down to 5.7 percent, or $4.03 million over this year's $70.7 million budget.

The council reduced the budget proposal by $959,350 before sending it to referendum May 1. Among the cuts were most of the capital improvement projects, a police officer position that would have been dedicated to traffic enforcement, and a new cruiser for the chief.

And instead of buying new replacement vehicles for various departments, the town will now lease.

The Republican-led council also decided to remove funding for a generator for the police station from the capital improvement budget and instead will purchase it with money from the general fund. An initial $79,000 in funding for the Horowitz pool renovation also was moved to that account.

Republicans have said they would consider further cuts tonight to capital improvement projects and roadwork, and may do away with equipment and vehicle leases altogether.

Many are expecting a proposal of an across the board percentage cut, which may or may not included the schools, and using about $1 million in general fund accounts to save other areas from the budget ax.

There is about $7 million in the general fund now. Some Republican council members claim that increasing taxes when there is that much money in reserve amounts to "over taxation."

But Democrats counter that under state law at least 11 percent of the general fund must be maintained as a rainy day fund.

Leave the general fund alone, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said today, adding that taxpayer money is being utilized in their best interest.

"I would guarantee that if we start fussing with the general fund in two years time we'll be classified as a distressed community" by the state, like Waterbury or Bridgeport, she said. "It will cost us a great deal of money in the future with our bond rating" as interest rates on future borrowing will rise significantly.

The town has a number of large building projects being bonded out right now, including the $68 million school renovation plan, Marmer pointed out.

"Torrington raided its fund balance, and when they had an emergency they had no money to rely on," she said. "We've done well to keep the bond rating low so as not to affect taxpayers, but right now we're at 10-plus percent, and that's not a optimal bond rating level. And once you dip below that, you become close to being a distressed community."

The council already has used the general fund for the police generator and the Horowitz pool project, she added.

"We can't keep doing this. Even John Q. Citizen will tell you that if you have a savings account, you utilize it appropriately," she said. You don't spend everything in your piggy bank and have nothing left."

Also, all cuts should be across the board, Marmer said.

"It's still not really fair, even in that respect - 2 percent out of the Board of Education's budget is not the big hit it would be for town side," she said.

School spending, which was initially reduced by the mayor roughly $1 million in her original proposal, now stands at $44.5 million.

In January, school board members adopted the school superintendent's proposed $45.4 million dollar package, increasing spending by 5.9 percent over this year's $42.8 million budget.

Most of the increase in the school budget goes to fixed operating expenses such as negotiated salaries and benefits, utilities, fuel, and transportation, school officials say.

Total student enrollment in Vernon, as of Jan. 2, is 3,812, and has steadily declined over the last 10 years by 10.6 percent, according to state Education Department figures.

School officials expect the downturn to level off in the coming year, and then rebound slightly.

©Journal Inquirer 2007