Despite fiscal challenges, Dickinson enthusiastic about possible 18th term as Wallingford’s mayor

Despite fiscal challenges, Dickinson enthusiastic about possible 18th term as Wallingford’s mayor


WALLINGFORD — Every one of Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s 17 terms have had challenges. But if the longtime Republican mayor is re-elected to an 18th term next month, he says the town’s fiscal challenges will be his toughest yet.

“This is well beyond anything previously faced,” said Dickinson, who has been mayor since 1984.

Proposed cuts to Wallingford’s state aid have ranged from zero to $14 million. If the town receives a substantial cut, Dickinson said “we will have to make serious reductions in our spending this year and that will most probably include layoffs.”

A loss in state funding would be exacerbated by a lack of economic growth locally in recent years. The town’s taxable grand list, released in February, grew .33 percent from the previous year.

“Clearly, I think the next budget will be worse than this one,” Dickinson said. “So I think we will be faced with not being able to do all the things we do today ... there’s not enough money.”

Dickinson, who turns 71 next month, is the second-longest serving mayor in the state, trailing only Republican Mayor Robert Chatfield, 73, of Prospect, who is serving his 20th term. Wallingford is a town of 45,000, while Prospect has a population of about 9,500.

“I still feel the interest and the energy,” Dickinson said. “I don’t want to run because I’ve done it before and I don’t know what else to do. You run because there are things you want to finish, things you want to do.”

He is being challenged by Democrat Jared Liu, a political newcomer who works as a senior associate director of admissions at Yale University’s School of Management. Dickinson has won every election since 1991 by at least 1,000 votes, according to election records.

He has won the last three elections by an average of roughly 3,000 votes.

Reflecting on the last two years, Dickinson cited several achievements he’s proud of, but added, “I don’t look at it that I’ve done it, I think the community has worked together on the things that have been accomplished.”

He mentioned the town’s success in attracting 25 new businesses in the first half of 2017, the completion of the North Farms Fire Station, expansion the Police Department’s community outreach efforts, the Electric Division’s project to replace downtown lights with LED bulbs, and change in school curriculum to encourage workplace skills.

Looking ahead, Dickinson said “economic development is very important” and, if elected, he would be “interested in what can continue to occur in the downtown,” including streetscape projects he hopes the town can complete on Hall Avenue and possibly North Cherry Street and North Colony Road toward the new train station.

In talking about the future, Dickinson turns back to uncertainty of state funding.

If Wallingford loses substantial aid, Dickinson said the town can dip into its “rainy day fund,” which was audited at $29.2 million in June 2016.

“Fortunately we have some reserves to ease into some of this, but the economy is just not supporting what has always been done,” Dickinson said.

But having a large general fund balance like Wallingford’s can be a double-edged sword — it helps the town make up any cuts, but some say it has also made the town an easier target for state officials to cut.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, after releasing his initial budget proposal in February that would have cut Wallingford’s aid by $10.2 million, said that “by considering a given community’s ability to pay, we can adjust to what taxpayers can actually afford.” Dickinson doesn’t believe taking money from towns with reserves is a viable solution.

“What I think, to a certain extent, the state doesn’t understand is you can have pockets of reserves... but in the middle of a drought, do you go and start pumping out of what few wells are still providing water? No, you’ve got to cut back,” Dickinson said. “I think it becomes an easy thing to say, ‘Oh you got some money, so you’ll have to share it with the state.’ Given that it’s one-time money, it’s just wrong to think that solves anything.”

Since the 2010-11 fiscal year, the town’s general fund has grown by about $9 million. The town has finished each of those six fiscal years with a surplus.

Dickinson’s detractors have criticized him for growing the fund balance without spending any of the money.

“I don’t think the rainy day fund is an example of being a good budget manager,” Liu said. “Essentially what he’s doing is raising the taxes just a little bit every year in order to direct that money to a rainy day fund. It’s not that he’s finding cost-cutting efficiencies or reducing expenses, it’s that he’s raising the taxes in order to grow this fund.”

“The issue is we have (money in reserves) to use and never use it,” Democratic Town Councilor Jason Zandri said earlier this year as the council debated the current year’s budget. Zandri and some other councilors have faulted Dickinson for chronically overestimating costs and underestimating revenues.

Dickinson defended the town’s budgeting approach. “You’re never going to hit zero, so would you rather have discussions about a deficit?,” he said. “So you can’t be sure. Any budget is an estimate. It’s an estimate of expenditures and it’s an estimate of revenues.”

Dickinson noted that Wallingford’s mill rate, 28.55, is comparable to or lower than rates in surrounding communities.

“The argument about well there’s too much taxes, if your taxes are way beyond anyone else’s, OK, you might have an argument. But ours are not,” Dickinson said. “Ours are very competitive.”

Detractors also contend the town’s services and infrastructure have suffered because Dickinson has been reluctant to spend the reserves.

Dickinson said that, “given diminishing resources,” the town is “doing very well” with maintaining infrastructure and assets.

“We don’t have the money we once had,” Dickinson said. “That money’s all gone because of state budgets and the economy in general. Businesses leave, whether it’s Verizon or Bristol-Myers. The economy in general in Connecticut is not good, so that means there’s less money being paid in, unless you want to increase taxes a lot. No one really wants to see the taxes go up, so you dedicate yourself to using money you have in the wisest way possible, which means some things are not going to get the same amount of money as before.”

Dickinson said he takes each term “two years at a time” and said he doesn’t know how much longer he wants to stay in office.

“When a decision’s made (to seek re-election), that’s for that two years. I don’t think beyond that,” he said.

Dickinson said he hasn’t thought much about what he will do when he is no longer mayor, but mentioned hobbies like playing tennis, reading and music.

Whether Dickinson is the best person to guide the town through future economic challenges is for the voters to decide, he said.

“Certainly I think I have qualifications and I bring some ideas,” Dickinson said, “but whether I’m the best person for the job, that ultimately is going to be the voters who decide.”
Twitter: @MatthewZabierek

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