WALLINGFORD — The Town Council quickly and unanimously overrode Mayor William Dickinson Jr.’s veto of the budget councilors approved last week during a special meeting Wednesday evening.
In a meeting that lasted barely 15 minutes, the seven councilors in attendance all voted in favor of overriding the veto, the minimum number, of nine total members, needed to take that action. It came after last week’s meeting where Republican Councilor Christina Tatta proposed six amendments to Dickinson’s budget that would have eliminated the 0.87 mill rate increase the Republican mayor proposed and allocated more money from the town’s general reserve fund and its American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government for pandemic relief.
But thinking that Tatta’s budget would definitely prompt a veto, Democratic Councilor Vincent Testa made his own amendment cutting the amount Tatta included from the general fund and funding the rest with a slight mill rate increase in the hopes that Dickinson would accept that budget. He didn’t, announcing Monday that he had vetoed it.
The $186,825,680 budget increases the tax rate by 0.3 of a mill, bringing the rate to 29.34 from the current 29.04 mills. A mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value. For a house assessed at $190,000, the tax bill would increase $57 from $5,517 to $5,574.
“I did last week vote no on the budget after much, much deliberation. I really didn’t know what to do up until the point of voting,” Tatta said. “I thought that the package I presented was good and I think a lot of the council supported it, but I do recognize Councilor Testa’s amendment to it to try to avoid the veto. But then we find ourselves here tonight with it being vetoed anyway.”
Tatta’s main goal was to eliminate any increase to the mill rate, but she said she understands why other council members saw that as unattainable.
“While I was upset we couldn’t get to the zero tax increase, I also recognize the council tried for a compromise,” she said. “I truly appreciate the bipartisan support that it garnered and really the options now since the zero tax increase is off the table are the mayor’s proposed budget, which is higher taxes and fewer services than what is in the council’s budget so I think the choice before me tonight is higher taxes and fewer services or lower taxes and more services and I will be voting in favor of lower taxes and more services.”
“This is a bipartisan compromise budget and it makes me proud to see this council working together to find common ground for the good of Wallingford,” Democratic Councilor Sam Carmody said. “I commend the mayor and the comptroller for the countless hours of work they put into this process but there are other creative ways that allow for a lesser tax increase than proposed.”
The position the council was in Wednesday is a familiar one, Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri said.
“We find ourselves here for the fourth year in a row,” he said. “The three prior years we had a lot of good foundational work done by the council to try to minimize the impact to changes in the budget and the first two years we executed as a group we were able to get that veto override. Last year we were unable to do so and that presents the unique situation where we are tonight.”
One of the biggest changes the council made to Dickinson’s budget was the use of additional ARPA funds, which Zandri said is a “one shot deal.”
“We have an opportunity to do that and get a lot of elements out of the way that would have otherwise gone into the tax base,” he said.
Another major change was the use of additional undesignated funds, he said. “Every year there is a number that we utilize as a buffer and it’s baked into the budget,” he said, but it is never totally spent.
“We all knew that was definitely a high probability destined for a veto,” he said of Tatta’s amendments to the budget. Instead the council supported Testa’s compromise suggestion of using $1.5 million from the general fund, half of what Tatta proposed, and fund it with a slight increase to the mill rate, smaller than what Dickinson proposed.
The changes also include additional funding to the police and fire departments and EMS, he said, as well as $150,000 for uptown and downtown sidewalk repairs, $130,000 for the replacement of the Pond Hill Elementary School gym floor and $80,000 each for the renovation of the ballfields and the back gym floor at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School.
“To be able to allocate these funds,” Zandri said, “and set that cushion up and lower the tax burden in a year where the (Consumer Price Index) pushed it 6% and we are coming in at basically 1.1% change on the mill rate. I think when we look at what we have been standing for for the past four years, this deserves our support tonight.”