May 14, 2014 12:56PM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — There was little debate Tuesday night as the Town Council voted 6-3 to adopt a 2014-15 budget of $152.29 million, representing a $4.89 million increase over this year’s budget.
Republican Councilors Bob Parisi, Craig Fishbein and John LeTourneau opposed the adopted budget, but did not propose any alterations.
To fund the increase, a majority of councilors voted to increase the tax rate from 26.22 mills to 26.89 mills. One mill is equivalent to one-tenth of a cent. Property tax is calculated by multiplying the assessed property value and the tax rate and dividing by 1,000. According to the mayor, the average homeowner in Wallingford has an assessed property value of $191,000. With the tax increase, the average homeowner would pay $5,139 in property taxes, an increase of $131 over the tax bill in 2013-14.
After councilors spent hours last Thursday debating and eventually approving a budget amendment of $515,000 to overcome the Board of Education’s shortfall, Tuesday night’s proceedings were mostly procedural. Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. initially proposed a $151.77 million budget in April. The proposal left the school system unable to sustain services.
Dozens of residents attended Tuesday’s meeting and a few voiced concerns about the town’s funding of the school system. One resident asked how town leaders proposed to avoid similar funding issues in the future. Two others said they would consider moving out of town if the Board of Education’s budget isn’t fully funded.
Parisi, Fishbein and LeTourneau said they weren’t against funding the school board.
“I’m opposed to the method,” LeTourneau said. “I feel there could have been a better way.”
LeTourneau said he would have preferred to partially fund the Board of Education shortfall with the town’s surplus money instead of raising taxes. Dickinson said the town’s surplus fund, at just over $24 million, is only for emergencies when the town is in danger of shutting down essential services.
Parisi said he couldn’t support such a large tax increase.
“I cannot support this due to the extraordinary outcry by my constituents who don’t want a tax increase,” Parisi said. “They supported me, so I have to support them.”
Fishbein signaled that he would not support the budget adopted Tuesday through a poem he read aloud. In the poem, Fishbein said, there were other areas where funding could have been cut to prevent a tax increase.
“We need to look at our priorities, and stay within our boundaries before the structure all around us collapses,” Fishbein said.
Councilors said Tuesday night that considering a tax increase and all other aspects associated with the 2014-15 budget was extremely difficult.
Council Vice Chairman Tom Laffin, a Republican, called the process “mentally and emotionally draining.”
“I have a hard time getting over the idea of a tax increase of that level,” he said.
Democratic Councilor John Sullivan said that while the tax increase is difficult, there are other municipalities in worse shape. Sullivan said he was proud to live in a town that is “unique and special.”
Even if the Board of Education is just sustaining services next year and in future years, the school system will continue to improve and grow under proven leadership, Sullivan said.
While he said he doesn’t prefer such a large tax increase, Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni, a Republican, said services such as the Board of Education need to be sustained to provide children in town the chance for success.
Dickinson, a Republican, said he thinks it will only become harder to avoid tax increases in the future.
“If you think this budget was bad, the next one is probably going to be worse,” he said.
There’s no picking and choosing who must pay higher taxes in town, Dickinson said, so local leaders must be responsible when increasing taxes. Nonetheless, “we are going to increase taxes to provide services we can be proud of,” Dickinson said.
Laffin and Republican Councilor Christine Mansfield urged residents to think about the future and become more involved. Laffin said residents should voice their concerns throughout the year so the council can better identify needs during the budget season. Mansfield said residents should attend meetings at both the local and state levels. Much of what left the Board of Education with a budget shortfall involved unfunded mandates at the state and federal levels, she said.
“We’re only on the town level,” Mansfield said. “We can’t control what’s coming down the pike.”