Wallingford’s looming budget vote could leave some residents in a pickle

WALLINGFORD — A tug-of-war between the mayor and Town Council over the use of town Electric Division funds might leave a small group of residents in something of a pickle.

The council is due to vote at its 6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday on the town’s proposed $177 million budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The council voted 9-0 to approve a change in Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s proposed budget that would allocate $60,000 to convert the four tennis courts at Harrison Park into eight pickleball-only areas.

The funds would come from the town Electric Division’s $1.8 million payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), which historically is used on town road paving and things like park improvements.

A member of a group of some 200 residents who play pickleball, resident John Weir, supports the idea, which was proposed by Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri. But he and Zandri fear that Dickinson will veto the budget and with it, the court conversion.

“I think the population that plays [pickleball] has grown in leaps and bounds in the northeast for the last two and a half years,” Weir said Monday. “It is an addictive game. It is a lot of fun and the town needs its own [pickleball] courts.”

Dickinson hinted on Friday that he might veto the budget because two other changes to it — a reduction of the proposed mill rate by 0.3 mills by appropriating an additional $1.5 million from reserves for the general fund balance and the creation of a $1 million fund for Community Pool renovations, also drawing from the Electric Division’s PILOT.

Dickinson opposes the use of reserves or money earmarked for capital projects on government operational needs.

The continued use of reserves for operational needs could force a decline in the town’s credit rating and undermine confidence in town government, Dickinson said. Moody's Investors Service reduced Wallingford's credit rating from Aaa rating to Aa1 rating in 2019. 

Dickinson also preferred to keep the dual tennis and pickleball courts at Harrison Park, 700 N. Main St. Ext.

Zandri, a Democrat, said he found flaw in Dickinson’s argument. The mayor is right to fear using capital project funding for operating expenses, but the mayor’s budget does not take into account state funding that the town will certainly receive for many construction projects. If it did, it would be clear how little harm such transfers would do to the town’s financial standing, Zandri said.

The town could use a set of pickleball courts, said Zandri and Councilor Craig Fishbein, a Republican.

Weir said that Cheshire, Durham, Middlefield and Milford are among several municipalities that over the last three years have built courts for pickleball, a sport particularly popular with seniors for the way that it combines tennis and ping pong. Like tennis, it features single and doubles play with rackets, but pickleball courts are much smaller than those used in tennis, the rackets are much lighter and the pickleball, like a ping-pong ball, curves much more sharply than a tennis ball.

Dual courts also are a hassle. Players have to put up or take down the pickleball nets every day, and would prefer permanent instead of temporary stanchions, Weir said.

“It’s almost like an abbreviated game of tennis where you’re standing on a ping-pong table,” said Zandri, calling his proposal for standalone courts at Harrison “an easy play.”

“The pickleball players have very clearly outlined the needs for this,” Zandri said.

Fishbein, who supports Zandri’s idea, said he was impressed with the dedication pickleball players displayed during the pandemic, playing most every day. If Dickinson vetoes the budget, he can still fund the courts’ construction or the council could propose doing so.

“We have the money, so I would defer to the Parks and Recreation Commission to determine where (pickleball courts) would be best suited for the town,” Fishbein said.

nsambides@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @JrSambides

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