Every month of April is a miserable time to be an elected official in a Connecticut municipal government. It’s the time when every town and city runs up against the reality that there is not enough money to come even close to accomplishing everything that might be done were sufficient financial resources available. It is the time when all the priorities of a town — education, public safety, public works, health, infrastructure repair and maintenance, etc. — compete with one another. It is often a time of disappointment and frustration.
There is a paradox in which the Town of Wallingford finds itself. There are towns and cities in this state that, due to their deteriorated industrial, social and economic condition, have essentially become wards of the state, depending overwhelmingly on state tax contributions to sustain municipal services. We are most fortunate not to be in that condition, but it also means we, not being among them, are largely expected to finance government services on our own.
On the other hand, we do not have the upper middle class taxpayer base of a Westport or a Glastonbury to whom we can turn for ever more tax money to provide more or enhanced municipal services. Our local government bumps up against our residents’ ability to absorb higher taxes, ultimately leaving our elected leaders in the unenviable position of saying no to everyone.
So in the next few weeks, the Mayor’s proposed budget will be scrutinized, analyzed and dissected. No one but no one will come away satisfied with the outcome, because there is no escaping the paradox described above.
You have read recently of comments that one of our problems is that the Dickinson administration does not budget accurately, resulting in annual “surpluses,” leading to the conclusion that we are overtaxed. It is even suggested that, should we have “tighter” budgeting, that somehow this will uncover the resources needed to fully fund the requests made by the various town departments.
The fallacy in this argument is two-fold. First of all, what is overlooked in the discussion is the fact that the unappropriated cash balance at the end of one fiscal year is not simply added to the existing cash balance, creating an ever-increasing pile of money. The reality is that much of it is used to reduce the tax burden in the following fiscal year.
Secondly, significantly reducing that cash reserve in a given year to fund annual operations for the government is only good for that year. For example, the proposed budget could take every dime of the reserves and completely fund both the requested Board of Education request and wipe out any need for a tax increase. But what would the town do twelve months from now? Where would the money come from to finance this increased baseline town budget?
There are no easy answers, and draining the reserves built up over a long period of time to eliminate the pain of a tax increase and the understandable exasperation of the Board of Education is merely kicking the proverbial can down the road.
The unavoidable reality is that we just do not have enough money to do everything that we want to do. We face that dilemma every day in our personal lives, and don’t seem to have a problem understanding those limits. But when it comes to government, our leaders in Washington have led us all to believe that we can have everything we want by living on someone else’s dime. Back here in the all too real world of Wallingford, however, we know that it just cannot be done.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.