Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon budget squeaks by

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
June 20, 2007

VERNON - By a difference of a bare 69 ballots, voters on Tuesday weighed in in favor of the Town Council's proposed budget at the fourth referendum this year, casting 2,127 yes votes.

They were in the majority, riding over the 2,058 who were against the budget.

An elated Mayor Ellen L. Marmer interrupted Tuesday's Town Council meeting to shout out, "Stop the presses. We have a budget!"

The announcement brought cheers and applause among those attending, as town staff and elected officials were dreading further cuts and a necessary 90-day emergency budget had the proposal failed yet again.

The latest spending plan - up for a fourth vote, following a four-year tradition - is $72.79 million, a 2.95 percent increase over this year's $70.71 million package.

General government spending totals $24.44 million, 2.46 percent more than this year's $23.85 million, while the school budget comes in at $44.15 million, or 3.06 percent more than this year's $42.84 million spending plan.

Capital improvement and debt service funding is $4.2 million, 4.69 percent more than this year's $4.01 million allocation.

According to Democratic Registrar of Voters Judith Beaudreau voter turnout was 27.95 percent Tuesday, up from the 24.78 percent that came out to the polls in the last referendum on June 5.

"From my vantage point, the people who came out to vote wanted to retain services," Marmer said, noting that the number of nay votes remained relatively consistent in the four referendums, while the yea votes climbed steadily each time.

"We've had new voters come out who understand the budget and the needs of the town and its children - they made this happen," Marmer said.

Complicating the budget this year was revaluation, completed in October 2006, at a time when property values in various pockets of town had soared. The upshot was dramatic increases on tax bills for some homeowners while others were affected only slightly or not at all.

In May, the Republican-controlled Town Council tried to address the issue and pushed forward a three-year phase-in of revaluation and its resulting tax increases.

But on Tuesday, Marmer and the council's Democratic minority tried to revisit the decision, inviting department heads to present the problems they'll encounter, including potential late mailing of tax bills and lost revenue from interest created mainly by software issues.

"There are some repercussions that are going to happen and we want to make sure the council is aware of them," Arthur Beirn, director of data processing, said.

But the presentation grew into a heated debate as Republicans accused Marmer and her fellow Democrats of reneging on promises to taxpayers that their bills would be lower as a result of the phase-in, which they say ultimately swayed voters into approving the budget.

"We worked hard on this back in May and now we're sitting here with a bunch of bureaucratic idiots asking us to go back on a promise we made?" Republican Councilman Daniel E. Anderson said. "This is a sham. "We should be ashamed of ourselves."

"I thought we went out to vote for a budget, now you're tying in reval - that's wrong," Democrat Marie Herbst chimed in. "People voted for this budget because they were voting on safety issues like police, fire, and education.

Marmer said there was a "tsunami effect to all of this," particularly with the technical problems staff will encounter, and that the council had a fiduciary responsibility to gather as much information as possible and listen to the professionals.

Debate was cut off last May when Republicans forced the vote on the phase-in, and some Democrats asked for more information, Marmer said, adding, "It's not an easy concept to understand."

Republican Councilman Daniel A. Champagne said it would be wrong, however, to rescind the promise of a phase-in.

"When phase-in was presented, it was presented at budget time," Champagne said, adding, "If we can save people money, then it's worth voting for."

At the end of Tuesday's council meeting, members adopted the tax rate of 32.91 mills needed to fund the budget.

The council also agreed to allocate $27,500 for labor costs and development of a "throw-away" software patch that needs to be written specifically for Vernon to accommodate the phase-in and produce the tax bills this summer.

Expected upgrades to the existing computer program that are scheduled for installation next fall won't need the software patch to produce tax bills in the remaining two years of the phase-in.

©Journal Inquirer 2007