Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Tempers flare as Vernon council cuts snow removal, police overtime

By: Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
May 22, 2007

VERNON - Town Council members gouged overtime accounts Monday night - affecting such services as street sweeping, leaf collections, snow removal, and police - and asked department heads to make further across-the-board cuts with the hope that a third budget proposal will pass referendum.

The budget hearing Monday started off congenially with a bipartisan vote requiring all department heads and the Board of Education to return tonight with suggested cuts of both 1 and 2 percent to their accounts and descriptions of what it would mean in terms of service.

But tempers flared after Republicans pushed for deep cuts to overtime and social service accounts, reducing the budget by $162,617, and angering Democrats who felt town managers were being limited in finding their own reductions for tonight's presentation.

Councilwoman Marie Herbst, a Democrat, was particularly irate.

"Right now you're picking apart their budgets that they're supposed to be working on and it's just not fair," Herbst told Republican members.

Mayor Ellen L. Marmer, a Democrat, placed further restrictions on department heads, saying capital improvements were off the table as those accounts already are decimated.

"We're doing this so people will get a clear picture of what services would be cut," Marmer said of tonight's presentation.

Cutting the overtime accounts effectively cuts services, both Public Works Director George Fetko and Parks and Recreation Director Bruce Dinnie said.

Fetko said leaf collection would be curtailed in the fall and street sweeping in the spring, while Dinnie said cuts to his overtime accounts meant staff would not be available for events that are scheduled on weekends and evenings, such as the Easter Egg hunt and fishing derby.

"Our activities typically take place when most people aren't working," Dinnie said.

Police Chief James Kenny said that overtime cuts to the Police Department would prevent officers from staffing such events as holiday parades, fireworks, or bicentennial celebration events.

Voters so far have rejected two budgets at referendum. The council is expected to adopt its third proposal this evening and present it at referendum June 5.

Republican Deputy Mayor Jason McCoy warned the dozen or so department heads attending Monday's meeting against presenting a cut that might agitate voters.

"I don't want to see something come back that's strictly vindictive," McCoy warned the managers. "I'm concerned that would anger people and cause them to vote the budget down."

"What we're looking for are some meaningful cuts," Republican council member Daniel E. Anderson said. "None of us wants to make these cuts, but we also want to get a budget passed.

"We want to stay away from cutting positions, but if we don't have meaningful cuts from department heads we're going to have to cut jobs," Anderson added.

Republicans warned that even after tonight's submission by managers, more cuts could be forthcoming. The legality of furloughs for employees was discussed, with Town Administrator Christopher Clark cautioning against it, saying that with union contracts, "furloughs create more problems than they're worth."

Anderson suggested a program allowing town employees to buy an extra week of vacation time. The program, which deducts a week's pay from an employee's annual salary in exchange for an extra week off, has been a success at Northeast Utilities, Anderson said.

About 30 percent of employees at Northeast Utilities, including Anderson, have taken advantage of the program there and saved the company quite a bit, he said.

Council members urged department heads to be creative and look for other cost-saving ways to do business.

"It ought to be apparent to everyone by now that these are difficult times," Republican Bill Campbell said. "It can't be business as usual anymore."

The Vernon Taxpayers Association, meanwhile, also reduced its bottom line.

Initially, when the mayor first presented her spending plan, President James Hoover said his group would be satisfied only with a 4 percent increase in spending: an adjusted 3 percent increase for inflation with an added 1 percent on spending.

Town Council members trimmed the package to an increase of 4.36 percent and the budget failed even as the group began calling for no more than a 3 percent increase.

Then on Monday, Hoover stood up and addressed the Town Council, lowering his expectations even further.

"Anything above a 2 percent increase is not fair to the taxpayer," said Hoover, who also cautioned council members against a "pay for haul" garbage collection service, as it would be a "double tax."

"We already pay for the worker's salaries and trucks," Hoover said.

©Journal Inquirer 2007