Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council sets budget with 3.65% hike

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
March 20, 2008

VERNON — After making a few tweaks, the Town Council adopted a proposed budget late Wednesday night, for a new total of $75.45 million, an increase of 3.65 percent over this year, or $2.66 million more.

The new spending package — which goes before voters in a special town meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 22, in the Vernon Center Middle School auditorium — includes general government appropriations of $25.08 million, another $14.66 million for capital improvements and debt service, and $45.69 million for education.

Altogether the council cut about $145,000 from Mayor Jason L. McCoy’s original proposal, with $34,898 coming from various general fund balance sheets and another $111,850 from the sewer plant enterprise account.

Finance Director James Luddecke said the tax rate resulting from the new plan should be around 30.47 mills, a decrease from the 30.6 mills resulting from the mayor’s proposed budget, and an 8 percent reduction from the current 32.91 mill rate.

However, it’s still not clear what the effect will be on individual homeowners. As the tax rate is declining, property values increased, exorbitantly for some, after revaluation.

The current proposal for the 2008-09 fiscal year increases spending by 2.66 percent. After capital improvements and debt service are factored in, however, the total increase of the Town Council’s budget over current spending is 3.65 percent.

Attempts were made Wednesday by Democratic Town Councilwoman Marie Herbst to spike $30,000 from the budget for McCoy’s proposed lobbyist position, but that effort died in a 7-to-5 vote.

McCoy has proposed hiring a lobbying firm to represent Vernon’s interests at the state capitol and, in particular, address the large number of unfunded mandates thrust upon the town.

One of the two people who came out to speak at Wednesday’ public hearing, James Webb Wilson, agreed with Herbst.

Wilson, who lost an independent bid for the mayor’s seat in November, says the town already pays dues to be included in various lobbying consortiums such as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. Also, Vernon has elected representatives it sends to the capitol to fight for its interests.

“We don’t need to spend another $30,000,” Wilson said.

Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock pointed out that Vernon’s elected officials are often outnumbered 8-to-2 as they compete with large urban areas, each having seven or eight representatives battling for precious few funds.

According to McCoy, state aid to Vernon has decreased in the last 10 years while town residents have been saddled with additional costs and taxes.

“It doesn’t appear that what we’re doing now in Hartford is working,” Republican Councilman Daniel Anderson said. “All they do is talk, talk, talk, and the representatives are losing us money.”

As for cuts to the waste treatment plant operation, Anderson said sewer rates are going up on average about $10 next year, and the department already is undergoing plant improvements. So some items — such as replacing an 18-year-old truck and buying new computer hardware and software as a backup system — should be delayed, Anderson said.

He suggested that Water Pollution Control Authority Director David Ignatowicz go back to his board and consider making cuts to its budget in the amount of $111,850.

Council members also decided to lease rather than purchase a new car for the building inspector, and reduced a $3,400 account for primary elections to $1, something that’s been done in the past when there is little chance of a primary election in the coming year.

Democratic Councilman Michael Winkler tried to reopen the education budget to add back $200,000 so the school board wouldn’t have to find any further cuts, but the council majority refused.

School spending remains at $45.69 million, a 3.5 percent increase, or $1.54 million, over the current $44.15 million 2007-08 budget.

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 by $675,569, and so far the Board of Education has determined where most of the cuts will come: keyboarding at the middle school, various paraprofessional positions, and delays in filling administrative positions and an elementary reading specialist. But another $198,000 still needs to be trimmed.

Most of the schools’ increased spending, about $1.73 million, covers salary raises, while textbooks and various rigid costs such as special education tuition, utilities, and fuel make up the rest.

Roughly 85.2 percent of the budget is dedicated to contracted costs and can’t be touched, with negotiated salaries accounting for 68 percent of the budget, while benefits are another 13.5 percent. Skyrocketing energy costs for heat, electricity, and transportation, meanwhile, account for roughly 3.7 percent of the school budget.

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.

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

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