WALLINGFORD — As municipal leaders around the state consider eliminating tax increases in budgets created before the pandemic, town leaders say the option is on the table.
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s proposed a mill rate increase of 1.06 percent in his budget released April 1. The current mill rate of 29.19 moves to 29.5, or roughly one-third of a mill.
Most of the Town Council is in favor no tax increase, but some are not convinced that it can be done without overreliance on the starting fund balance, also called the surplus account, of $7.4 million.
Councilor Chris Shortell said Tuesday that he’s generally been supportive of Dickinson’s budgeting philosophy since it has avoided large, unpredictable tax increases over the years in favor of consistent, moderate ones.
In the current budget, however, he would be willing to use more of the surplus if it were coupled with spending reductions in general government and education.
“Personally, I’m on the fence, because I do think the mayor is already relying heavily on the surplus,” Shortell said. “But one could also argue that we’re in the midst of a truly ‘rainy day’ and there’s something to be said for giving some of that surplus money back to the people via a zero tax (increase)...”
Councilor Craig Fishbein, who has never voted for a tax increase, said he especially does not support one “in a year in which the government has arbitrarily and inconsistently stepped in to close businesses, some to never re-open, and put many people out of work, many still waiting for their first unemployment check.”
He said the budget can be re-adjusted to avoid a tax increase.
“Dipping into the surplus is an option, but not for recurring costs of operation,” he said.
Councilor Christina Tatta shared Fishbein’s concerns about using the surplus for recurring costs. Her solution is to ask each department head if they could trim an additional 1 percent.
“I feel it is appropriate for every department to give a little, in an effort to help the taxpayers,” she said.
Councilor Gina Morgenstein said that she was going to make the same request as Tatta.
“I see the zero increase as an absolute need this year,” she said. “I do not as of yet know where to take that money from … There is still a lot of information to gather.”
Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni also said there is still a lot left to do before deciding on a course of action.
“It is still too early in the process for me to have made up my mind about these questions,” he said.
Councilor Jason Zandri said that there is room to trim.
“I intend to look for budgets to cut, mainly from expected surpluses I believe we will have from non-use because of interruptions from the COVID-19 shutdown,” he said.
The Board of Education is considering returning $1 million to the town from a surplus largely created from withholding payment on its bus transportation contract during the schools shutdown.
Councilor Vincent Testa said he supports a zero-percent tax increase, but instead of making cuts to a specific item in a particular department, the council may need to look at handling the larger capital items differently this year.
“That could mean moving project money around and reallocating some money in the capital funds,” he said. “I will propose utilizing additional reserve fund money if absolutely necessary. As in the past, it’s not a matter of the principle. The mayor is proposing using quite a bit already. It’s a matter of scope.”
Councilor Tom Laffin said creating a budget with a zero-percent mill rate increase has be to done responsibly.
“There are quick ways to not have a tax increase, but they are not repeatable,” he said. “In subsequent years, you would have to increase the taxes even more and all at once to compensate for the fact that you are dependent on a larger ‘revenue’ that does not actually exist because in reality you used a windfall.”
He said he’s looking for savings in any one-time items or the removal of unnecessary or outdated programs, and has some hope that the state has budgeted to give Wallingford more than Dickinson’s proposal includes.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Laffin said, “but it has to be everyone, each of us … look, try and want a way to have a zero increase or at least minimize the increase as much as possible. All of us, both sides...”
Councilor Joe Marrone feels the goal is possible because the mayor’s proposed budget is already close.
“I don't know that we need to cut anything but if we tidied up the parts of the budget that are bloated I think we could find the money there,” he said. “As you may know, there is somewhere in the neighborhood of six million dollars that gets passed from year to year budget to budget. Potentially tap into that money...I'm open to any ideas.”