Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon mayor proposes 3.7% budget increase

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
March 7, 2008

VERNON - Mayor Jason L. McCoy unveiled his first budget proposal Thursday, requesting $75.48 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year. The spending plan reflects a 3.7 percent increase of $2.69 million over the current budget.

According to McCoy, most of the increase is due to debt service and education - 20.46 and 3.5 percent increases respectively.

The tax rate resulting from the proposal, which would go into effect July 1, would go down to 30.6 mills from the current 32.91 mills.

But because of last year's revaluation and the phase-in plan adopted by the council, it's unclear what the impact will be on property owners who saw the values of their homes soar.

Revaluation shifted the tax burden from commercial and industrial property to residential, hitting owners of modest homes particularly hard. As a result, the council decided last year to adopt a three-year phase-in, hoping to ease the burden.

Finance Officer James Luddecke is working on how the proposed budget would affect taxpayers, and is expected to have those numbers available by next week.

Fuel costs, debt service challenges

Among the challenges McCoy faced was skyrocketing fuel costs and debt service on bonding projects that have come due.

"I got a stomachache when I saw that," McCoy said.

He cut capital spending from $443,217 to $150,000 to apply to the debt, which increased 20.46 percent, from $3.76 million to $4.53 million, in the last fiscal year.

Among the items requested but not funded are an ambulance and fire truck, the picnic pavilion at Henry Park, a new roof at the community pool, improvements to the Fox Hill radio tower, and masonry, roof and asbestos work at Center 375.

Also cut was the third of four $280,000 payments for the town's share of the federally financed intermodal transportation center proposed for downtown Rockville. The project is not being spiked, McCoy says, but instead will go before a special town meeting where voters can decide if the appropriation should be made.

Projects that are funded in the capital improvements budget include $60,000 for building renovations to the Town Hall third floor, $48,100 for a crematory system at the animal shelter, and $16,000 to lease a hybrid vehicle for the building inspector. Also, the town clerk requested $75,000 for rehabilitation of the vault storing all town documents, and $25,900 was budgeted.

McCoy, who says he began work on the budget proposal in late November, has presented a number of initiatives, including hiring a lobbyist and funding all-day and extended-day kindergarten programs from rental fees of school buildings.

The lobbyist would be a consulting firm hired at the cost of $30,000 to represent Vernon's concerns at the state capitol. In particular it would address unfunded mandates, which are choking the education and public safety budgets, McCoy said.

Rental fees

As for kindergarten, McCoy says, rental fees paid by the Indian Valley YMCA for its after-school child care service should adequately fund the town's kindergarten program.

The Board of Education in June updated its building use policy, significantly raising rents to cover the wear and tear of its buildings by frequent users such as the YMCA.

But YMCA Executive Director Suzanne Appleton petitioned the board for a break, as the new rental fees would have cost the nonprofit a prohibitive $122,000 a year.

Last month the board changed its policy again, granting the Y a reduction, and School Superintendent Richard Paskiewicz said he doesn't know if that funding stream will cover the costs of kindergarten.

All-day kindergarten was briefly offered at all elementary schools in 2005, but has since been cut everywhere except for two sections serving about 40 children at Maple Street School. There, a federal grant of roughly $100,000 has paid the bill, but that disappears next year, Paskiewicz said.

The school board is considering, among other things, offering only extended day kindergarten rather than all day, for a reduced cost of $75,000, he said.

"And we still have to address the $675,000 in cuts - that's substantial and it does not address at all any kindergarten program," Paskiewicz said, adding, "It's going to be harmful."

School enrollment rebound expected

In February the school board approved a 4.96 percent increase and sent a $46.34 million budget request to the mayor. McCoy trimmed the package, and the education fiscal plan is now a proposed 3.5 percent hike in spending, $45.69 million.

Most of the added spending, about $1.73 million, covers salary increases, while various costs such as special education tuition, utilities, fuel, and textbooks, make up the rest.

Enrollment figures have dropped significantly in recent years - more than 9 percent from June 2006 to January 2008. Total student enrollment in Vernon as of Feb. 1 is 3,648 students. Two years ago enrollment totaled 3,936 students.

State officials say enrollment should rebound next year.

Meanwhile, the budget reflects a loss of two retiring teachers whose positions won't be filled because of the drop in enrollment.

According to the latest state figures, per pupil spending in Vernon is slightly below the state average.

Expenditures for elementary and middle school grades total $8,773 per student. The state average is $9,062 for that grade level. As for the high school, Vernon spends $9,221 per pupil, while the state average stands at $9,640.

©Journal Inquirer 2008