Recently, there has been much written about modifications to the Town of Wallingford’s 2018-19 budget. Some of it inaccurate. This column attempts to accurately state the facts, and explain how we got to the present — a very small tax increase.
On May 16, the Town Council received backup for its May 22, regular meeting. Agenda Item #8 was a recommendation from the Mayor to: accept additional revenue from the state, adjust health insurance costs, and lower his tax increase.
This was accompanied by a letter stating the recommendations were authorized by the law department. Before the meeting, I asked Attorney Janis Small about general modifications to the town budget after the date stated in the Charter. She said the only thing we could address was the new state revenue. At that point, I brought to her attention the fact that Agenda Item #8 contained more than that — the health insurance adjustment, a fact of which she was unaware.
About an hour before the meeting, a revised Agenda Item #8 was issued, removing the health insurance item, accompanied by a revised letter from the mayor, omitting the prior representation about the law department’s support for that modification.
At the meeting, the issue became “Can the Town of Wallingford modify its budget after the date stated in the Charter, but before the new fiscal year begins?” The law department reiterated that, except for the new state revenue, the budget could not be otherwise modified because the date in the Charter had passed.
Having conducted my own research, I disagreed. I quoted from Connecticut Supreme Court precedent, as well as from records from other towns, indicating that “shall” in a town Charter (given the timing of the action) could be directory rather than mandatory, and therefore not as draconian as the law department would have.
I then made a motion to modify the mayor’s proposal, expanding it to include additional cuts which I had supported throughout the budget sessions, and had never voted against, even though some writers would have you believe otherwise. Ultimately, with the exception of Councilor Tom Laffin (who voted no) every member of the Town Council in attendance (Councilor Jason Zandri was absent) voted in favor of the motion, passing it 7 to 1. That was followed by a motion for a new, lower mill rate. That motion also passed, and the Town Council effectively passed a modified budget on May 22, 2018, two weeks after the date stated in the Charter.
On May 30, the law department reversed its prior legal opinion, then agreeing with my position of May 22 that, based upon timing, the Town of Wallingford CAN modify just about anything in its budget after the date stated in the Charter — their one caveat being the modification must be by recommendation of the mayor, a point ripe for argument, but need not be the subject of challenge here.
On June 1, based upon this new legal opinion, the mayor recommended almost all of the Town Council’s May 22 modifications. On June 5, the Town Council held a special meeting, at which time I pointed out that the mayor had not vetoed the Town Council’s actions of May 22, and the Charter says if the mayor does not veto a matter within 10 days, the action of the Town Council becomes law. From my perspective, due to the mayor’s refusal to veto, there was nothing for the Town Council to address on June 5 — the May 22 budget having already been passed due acquiescence. Thus I voted against the item, but it nonetheless passed over my objection, 7 to 1 (Councilor Laffin was absent). The result was a higher tax increase than the budget of May 22, albeit still small.
A recent letter to the editor argued the Town Council should not have followed my direction — a legal opinion about the Charter the law department initially disagreed with, but eventually adopted. (One may remember, not so long ago, I fought the City of Meriden’s law department and their stable of privately hired lawyers about their Charter, the result being that the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with me.) Here, I think it should be clear that Wallingford’s taxpayers, most especially those on a fixed income, are better off as a result of my taking the time to do the research, and to present a winning argument that, in the end, results in what is believed to be the Town of Wallingford’s lowest tax increase in over a decade.
Craig Fishbein is a member of the Wallingford Town Council, serving in his fifth term, and in his first term as a State Representative (R-90). He is also a lawyer in private practice, maintaining an office in Wallingford.