Column: A response to Mr. Fishbein’s argument on ‘over-taxation’ in Wallingford

Column: A response to Mr. Fishbein’s argument on ‘over-taxation’ in Wallingford


Well, we now see an emerging theme for the municipal elections coming up, and the buzzword to be used is “over-taxation.” Politicians love shorthand expressions like this because, if they say them over and over and over again, the true meaning of such language gets lost in all the rhetoric, and the user of the buzzword need only to keep repeating the phrase until the voters can no longer discern any meaning or clarity. Like the very clever use of the term “hope and change.” By the end of President Obama’s term, none of his supporters had any idea what that phrase stood for, nor did they care. It had been reduced to a catchphrase.

The “over-taxation” refrain was the subject of Wallingford Town Councilor Craig Fishbein’s May 21column. The purpose of this column will be to examine three of Mr. Fishbein’s statements to see if his “over-taxation” arguments hold water. I will quote the column and then assess the accuracy of those words.

“… the mayor had requested the Town Council authorize $4,748,556 toward the consolidated pension plan … allegedly [my emphasis] at the recommendation of the actuaries.” A popular definition of this word alleged or allegedly, according to Harper Collins Publishers Limited is “an exclamation expressing disbelief or skepticism.” I admit surprise that Mr. Fishbein, who justifiably prides himself on his arduous Council meeting preparation, would not satisfy himself that the figure quoted was accurate.

I made a quick inquiry as to the availability of such data, and was told by Personnel Director Jim Hutt that these actuarial reports and all the data from which the actuaries drew their conclusions is readily available to anyone in town who was interested. So there should be no doubt as to the veracity of that number and no reason for using the adverb allegedly when quoting these figures.

“It is interesting to note where these over-taxation dollars were spent … Almost all of these funds went directly into the town’s reserve accounts, an action never authorized by the Town Council.” First of all, putting money into the reserves is not spending, as Councilor Fishbein contends. Just the opposite. This is money NOT spent. It still exists, placed “in reserve” to then be available to be spent in the future.

Secondly, the Town Council’s function is to authorize spending. If money is not spent, the administration doesn’t require Council approval to not spend money. In other words, unspent money automatically becomes part of the Town’s cash reserves. No Town Council action is required.

“Were they paying down the pension liability as authorized by the Town Council? No, they were not.” Here is another misnomer, a misunderstanding of the role of the Town Council in the budgeting process.

When it passes a budget, the Town Council authorizes the administration to spend money, but the mayor has the authority to reduce any appropriation in the approved budget. The mayor cannot spend more than authorized, but he/she may spend less than the budgeted amount.

Put another way, by passing a Town budget, the Council authorizes the mayor to spend money up to a specific amount. He/she may not exceed that amount of spending without Council approval. Put yet another way, the budget sets limits on spending. It does not command the administration to spend an exact amount of money for a given purpose.

Now if you’ve stuck with me through this, you’re probably thinking to yourself: “This is giving me a headache” or “This guy Knight is such a nerd.” And on the latter point you may very well be right.

But we have municipal elections coming up in a few months, and if one of the themes is going to be “over-taxation,” then we all need to get accurate information to evaluate this claim.

Yes, sometimes it looks as if we are arguing: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But local government is important, and vigorous debate about its management and structure is what will keep it strong and transparent. On that point, Mr. Fishbein and I are, without doubt, in complete agreement.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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