MERIDEN — Privatizing the municipal golf course, closing Fire Station 3 and implementing layoffs and furlough days were some of the changes residents suggested during a public hearing held on the city budget Thursday evening.
The City Council’s finance committee held the hearing at Lincoln Middle School as the council gets ready to take another look at the previously adopted $198 million budget. Nearly 6,000 voters rejected the budget, which would raise property taxes by 4.66 percent, in a referendum last month, forcing the council to go back to the drawing board and pass a new budget by Aug. 17.
Residents told councilors Thursday they can’t afford the tax hike, which would result in the average homeowner paying roughly an additional $200 in taxes over the current year.
“I’m tired of hearing people say, ‘Well, it’s only $200,’ ” resident Maryellen Mordarski said. “Well, if you don’t have the $200...I can’t go to somebody and say, ‘Oh, hey, I need an extra $200 for my taxes.’”
“It’s time that the department heads gave a little,” Mordarski added.
The property tax increase is coupled with a 13 percent motor vehicle tax increase included in the budget, resident Joe Vollano noted, in addition to increases in water and sewer rates previously approved by the city.
About 25 residents spoke at the hearing, which lasted about an hour.
Resident Whit Gardner told councilors the city needs to consider furlough days and layoffs to cut spending, something he saw firsthand working in the private sector for over 40 years.
“I know it’s not a popular decision, but that’s how I lived for 40 years,” he said.
Some residents spoke in favor of closing the Fire Station 3 firehouse on Broad Street and merging it with another station, a move that city officials have talked about for years as a way to possibly cut costs.
Vollano, who said he lives near Station 3, argued closing the firehouse wouldn’t result in longer response times. But other residents raised concerns, including Mordarski, who said insurance companies will factor the closing when determining costs.
“You cut that out and I guarantee not only will our taxes go up, our insurance rates are going to go up because they’ll see it as a bigger risk,” she said.
Holly Wills, president of the Meriden Council of Neighborhoods, said she’s worried cuts to police and fire will result in higher crime rates and longer response times. She suggested instead privatizing the city’s golf course, which has shown financial losses for years, according to finance director Michael Lupkas. Wills said privatizing the course would put it “back on the city’s tax rolls,” however, Lupkas said after the hearing the city would need to sell the land, not just contract operation of the course out, in order to generate taxes from it.
Some residents suggested specific amendments, while others called for about a 2.5 percent cut across all departments. Residents told the council to put the burden on department heads to decide how to manage the cut.
“If you have a department that can’t find 2.5 percent, that’s the first person you let go,” resident John Rush said.
According to Lupkas, about $5.5 million would need to be cut from the $198 million budget to keep taxes flat. Many residents called for a zero tax increase. Others said they understand a smaller cut is more realistic.
Michael Carabetta, a resident who initially led the effort to collect the 2,733 petition signatures needed to force the referendum, spoke at the meeting and said he “started this thing to open people’s eyes and get a conservation started.”
“I think I accomplished that,” Carabetta said as the audience applauded. This year marked the first time voters have rejected a city budget since the City Charter was changed 22 years ago, allowing the referendum process.
The finance committee will meet again Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Lincoln Middle School to discuss budget changes for the first time and send a recommended budget to the full council. The council will meet Aug. 16 to adopt a new budget. Mayor Kevin Scarpati will then be given five days to issue any vetoes.