When I first read that the Dog Pound Trust was being brought up for discussion in last Tuesday’s Wallingford Town Council meeting, I thought, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”
Back in the spring of 2009, in a budget workshop, the Council voted 7-2 to reduce the department’s budget by $18,600 and apply a like amount from the trust fund. The controversy of such a move centered on whether this use was in keeping with the intent of the person who had donated the vast majority of the money in that fund. She had specified that the money was to be used for special needs and improvements not normally covered by the town.
By the time the budget came to an actual vote, an incensed public had given the Town Council the answer to that question, and Councilors couldn’t get to the microphone fast enough to rescind that vote.
Having been thoroughly and angrily chastised by public and family alike, the members had suddenly gained a whole new perspective on the appropriate use of those funds.
So I was ready, pen in hand, to write about “ sacred trust” and “donor intent” and the responsibility that government has in such matters.
But, lo and behold, the discussion that took place was a calm, careful examination of whether even certain planned capital expenditures – not operating expenditures as in 2009 – were an appropriate use of the funds in that trust. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, and some Councilors questioned whether even the planned purchase of new dog kennels would qualify “for the purpose of improving and maintaining the health and well-being of the animals … “
So here in Wallingford, it appears that elected officials understand that diverting trust funds from their stated purpose is a violation of their sworn responsibilities. Were that the State of Connecticut had been that sensitive to the voters.
Remember that back in 2009, the Democratic General Assembly, with the acquiescence of the Republican Governor, “swept” $500,000 from the Specialty License Plate funds into the general fund in order to help balance the state budget? Car owners had paid special higher automobile license fees so that a portion of the fee would be placed in trust funds to be used only for eight special causes such as Preserving the Sound or Caring for Animals. People had, in good faith, given over extra money foolishly thinking that it would be safe from diversion and would then directly benefit causes in which they strongly believed.
But, being addicted to both spending the state couldn’t afford and to accounting gimmicks masking the true condition of state finances, the majority gave these naïve souls the back of its hand and looted these funds. In fairness, it must be reported that some of the funds have subsequently been restored, but what hasn’t been restored is the faith that voters have that state officials can be trusted to honor these special commitments.
The same can be said for the Transportation “Trust” Fund. Originally set up to funnel all state diesel and gasoline taxes specifically into transportation projects, this “Trust” fund has been routinely plundered to supplement the general fund.
In other words, it has become an unbreakable habit in this state to make promises to the voters in order to get into office and, once elected and comfortably ensconced in Hartford, to go back on their word and raid these funds.
Alas, so often it seems now that life is imitating art. This state of affairs so reminds me of a line in the movie Animal House. One fraternity brother, Flounder, had lent his grandfather’s car to a group of others including the fraternity president, who proceeded to utterly trash it. When asked what had happened, the explanation from the fraternity president was simply: “Hey, Flounder, you screwed up. You trusted us.”
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.