MERIDEN — City Councilors promised to continue exploring ways to cut costs and raise revenue a day after they passed a revised budget that lowered this year’s property tax increase from 4.53 percent to 3.28 percent.
After 6,000 residents rejected a previous spending plan at referendum last month, the City Charter required the council to pass a revised budget by Friday. Councilors said they think they did their best to cut the budget in the allotted 30 days.
“Our work is not done. I can’t say that enough,” Council Majority Leader David Lowell said Friday.
Changes councilors said couldn’t be enacted within the 30-day window include starting a retirement incentives program aimed at saving the city money long term, considering possible changes on managing a city-owned golf course, and generating more revenue through fees for fire permits and inspections. The fire department has also been preparing a study on savings through restructuring, including possibly closing Fire Station 3 on Broad Street.
“I can assure you everyone’s listening and some things absolutely move slower than others,” Lowell said Friday in response to some residents who said Thursday the council didn’t take their suggested cuts into consideration.
Though any savings from future changes won’t be reflected in this year’s mill rate, Council Minority Leader Dan Brunet said they will “lay the groundwork” for future years.
At recent meetings, some residents urged the council to keep taxes flat, which city officials said would have required about $5.5 million in cuts.
“I’m disgusted about this new tax proposal,” resident Steve Cardillo said Thursday night. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. All the hard work these people did — 6,000 voters — and this is what you give us. It’s terrible, injustice, awful."
The city’s motor vehicle tax will also go up 10 percent in addition to the property tax increase. The original budget would have raised the motor vehicle tax 13 percent.
“It was very clear the public wanted to get to a (zero tax increase),” Lowell said. “We tried as hard as we could. We could not find sufficient cuts to get there and that's why we need to keep working.”
The new budget passed 11-1 Thursday, with We the People Councilor Bob Williams as the only “no” vote. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
Brunet said residents should be happy with the budget “to some extent,” adding the public needs to keep in mind this year’s taxable grand list did not produce any new revenue while the city’s annual expenses for things like health insurance continue to rise.
“I think we did our best in a difficult situation, just as we do every time we pass a budget,” said Brian Daniels, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee. “We tried to continue to balance all the different constituent interests that were out there the first time and we tried to do the same thing with the budget cuts across the board this time.”
The new budget reduces funding to the police and fire departments by $250,000 and cuts all other departments by the value of three furlough days.
Brunet said there’s no question the public “made a difference” in getting the council to reconsider cuts he proposed during the first budget-making process.
This was the first time that residents had rejected a budget since the City Charter was revised over 20 years ago to allow the referendum process. Brunet believes the referendum will change the council’s mindset when creating future budgets.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who didn’t return a request for comment Friday, has five days following the council’s vote Thursday to issue any line-item vetoes, which the council could then override with a two-thirds vote.