WALLINGFORD — The Law Department is still reviewing whether the Town Council was legally permitted to make amendments to the previously adopted 2018-19 budget earlier this week.
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said he is awaiting a legal opinion on the move.
“We’re waiting for the town attorney to review the legal side of it,” Dickinson said.
Town officials couldn’t say what would happen if the law department rules the changes were not permitted by Town Charter.
The Law Department declined to comment on the issue after Tuesday’s council meeting. The town will only have a couple weeks to resolve the issue because tax bills are set to be sent out next month, said Town Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni.
On Tuesday, the council considered what to do with an influx of $2.4 million in state aid that wasn’t included in the budget that was adopted on May 8. The state budget, adopted on May 9, included more funding than Dickinson anticipated in his budget.
If the budget stands, it would mean a .21-mill increase, from 28.55 mills this year to 28.61 mills next year. One mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed home value. The average residential homeowner will pay an additional $8 next year under the change, according to comptroller Jim Bowes.
During the meeting, the Law Department told the council it could make changes in response to the additional $2.4 million in state aid because action was based on information the council received after the budget was adopted. The council didn’t have the authority to make other changes, including retroactively cutting the Board of Education’s budget by $411,000, because the charter’s deadline had passed, according to the Law Department.
The department based its decision on language in the Town Charter and past legislation that has allowed towns to ignore local budgeting rules in response to cuts in state aid.
“The state, in the law itself, gave them the authority to adjust their budgets only to the extent that they reduced state funding – not beyond that, not a total re-do of the budget,” Corporation Counsel Janis Small told councilors Tuesday. “...So the state law recognized that if they didn’t give you permission to do this, you had no authority to do that because no one’s charter provides for such thing.”
Dickinson’s budget had been adopted after the council failed to approve a plan of its own by the May 8 deadline, per the town charter.
Councilor Craig Fishbein, who proposed Tuesday’s budget changes, disagreed with the Law Department’s opinion and cited a past state Supreme Court decision that ruled the city of New Haven was permitted to adjust its budget after the deadline set by the city charter.
Dickinson said the Law Department is still reviewing the case cited by Fishbein, who works as an attorney in private practice. Small said during the meeting that New Haven adjusted its budget based on new information it learned after the deadline, and Wallingford’s situation is different.
Most of Fishbein’s proposed changes were included in the amended budget that the council rejected by a 5-4 vote on May 8, resulting in Dickinson’s budget being adopted. Fishbein was among the councilors that voted against the changes during the May 8 meeting.
Small questioned whether the council has the authority to “re-do” the adopted budget.
"You had an opportunity to remove these things from the budget and you chose not to," Small told the council.
Dickinson, who took office in 1984, said he couldn’t recall another time when the council went against the legal advice of the town’s Law Department.
Republican Vice Chairman Tom Laffin, the only councilor to vote against approving Fishbein’s proposed changes, said he would have preferred to ensure the changes were legal before approving them. He also thinks some councilors were motivated to approve the changes after receiving backlash for rejecting the amended budget earlier this month that would have reduced taxes from what the mayor proposed.
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