Meriden mayor wields veto knife sending detailed message to council

MERIDEN — Mayor Manny Santos expects to reduce the city budget by about $256,000 after vetoing close to 30 budget line items Monday. Santos used his veto to reduce spending on management raises, legal fees, overtime for city workers, and one position.

As mayor, Santos has veto authority over any line item in the budget. The City Council can override the vetoes by a two-thirds majority vote.

“We can’t continue to fund tax increases every year and expect all of the taxpayers to keep up,” Santos said Monday night.

The $185.11 million budget for 2014-15 was adopted by an 11-1 vote last Monday and included a 2.23-percent tax rate increase. The increase raised the tax rate to 35.77 mills, a 0.78-mill rise over 2013-14. One mill equals $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed property value. The owner of a median-value, single-family home would pay about $98 more in taxes annually under the budget as adopted.

Santos lowered the amount allocated for “management non-union expenses,” which he said is designated for raises for managers, from $50,000 to $35,000. The decrease would result in a salary freeze for managers.

“Future budgets will likely necessitate union concessions,” he wrote. “Management needs to lead by example.”

He also reduced the amount allocated for attorney fees by $45,000, and wrote that “attention needs to be given to reduce lawsuits and litigation.” He added that “utilization of staff attorneys should be increased.” Since Santos took office, two lawsuits were filed against city employees or city officials that challenged their positions. A Superior Court judge ruled against the city in both cases and Santos had been critical of the city’s position and legal opinion of the city’s corporation counsel on the issue. The lawsuits are expected to cost the city close to $80,000.

As part of his recommendation to eliminate a program of biannual inspections of all rental units in the city, Santos used his veto to defund one inspector position and cut funding for another inspector in half. While city officials have argued that the Certificate of Compliance program prevents deterioration of units and buildings, Santos and others argue it discourages private investment.

In a related move, Santos issued a separate veto for the $814,162 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds the city receives. Three-fourths of the salary for inspectors under the compliance program were paid through CDBG money. Santos recommends that money be spent elsewhere. The grant is considered a single line item, however, so he vetoed the entire amount.

Santos also used his veto to reduce funding for youth activities from $80,000 to $60,000 and to eliminate the $7,000 Cultural Diversity Fund line item. The fund is used almost exclusively for the annual Puerto Rican Festival and Black Expo, Santos said, and he encouraged organizers of such events to make them self-sustaining. He said “all festivals should be self-sustained, supported by hard working volunteers and fundraisers.”

Six of 29 budget expenses that were vetoed list reducing the amount spent on office supplies as the reason. There is a need to “cut office expenses everywhere, including office supplies,” Santos said in his veto message. He also vetoed the amounts allocated for overtime in nine departments, stating that there is a need to cut expenses and “overtime can be avoided or reduced.”

Santos also vetoed the capital improvement fund, which includes numerous projects and pieces of equipment expected to be bonded over a 20-year period, separate from the annual operating budget. He listed six specific objections, most notably funding for the linear trail project.

Santos hinted over the last few weeks at the possibility of eliminating funding for engineering and design work for future linear trail phases. The capital improvement project fund designates $170,000 to be bonded. Santos suggested that the money could be better spent or eliminated for now and the trail could be funded when “the economic conditions of Meriden have significantly improved.”

“If some of my other concerns are addressed, I may even enthusiastically support it,” Santos wrote. “Again, this will not impact our continual flood control remediation. Further, sections of Phase 3 and 4 are glorified sidewalks, not what we would expect of a nature-surrounded lineal trail.”

Santos also vetoed the entire $2,500 line item in the operating budget allocated for the Linear Trail Advisory Committee.

In place of the linear trail expansion designs, Santos recommended funding the design of a children’s library expansion at a cost of $200,000 in the capital budget. The expansion designs had been scheduled for the 2015-16 fiscal year. The other objections included funding a washing machine and dryer for the fire department in the next fiscal year, rather than 2015-16, and funding for signs and a box truck replacement.

City Council Minority Leader Dan Brunet said he supported Santos’ making additional cuts in order to keep the tax increase under 2 percent.

“This may achieve that,” he said. “Some hard decisions are necessary and Mayor Santos has stepped up and made some tough choices.”

Santos delivered his veto message shortly after 5 p.m. Monday. Attempts to reach other councilors were either unsuccessful or the councilors declined to comment because they had not thoroughly reviewed the information.

The council is expected to meet to address the vetoes and to set a tax rate at a special meeting Thursday. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

dbrechlin@recordjournal.com 203-317-2266 Twitter: @DanBrechlinRJ



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