WALLINGFORD — The Town Council’s proposed changes to the mayor’s 2021-22 budget of $177 million would partially offset a tax increase and create a new fund for Community Pool renovations.
The changes didn’t sit well with Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., who said Friday, after the council amended his budget the night before, that he’s “very concerned” about the proposals, which dip into reserves or use money earmarked for road and infrastructure projects.
By using funds that historically have been used for capital projects on operational needs, “you’ll end up without any money for capital projects,” he said.
“The capital program is the one we depend upon for doing roads and bridges,” he said. “It’s a dependable supply of money, to be able to do those things on a regular basis. If we end up being dependent upon annual budgets to do those things, it will have a very negative effect.”
The council is scheduled to adopt a budget at next week’s meeting. If the council fails to adopt a budget, the mayor’s original budget proposal would be adopted. The mayor can veto the council’s amended budget, but the council can overrule that veto with seven votes.
Dickinson would not say whether he would veto the budget over the changes.
“Certainly, I’m considering all options,” he said.
The council voted 6-1 in favor of Councilor Christina Tatta’s amendment that reduces the proposed mill rate by 0.3 mills by appropriating an additional $1.5 million from reserves in the general fund balance, which would be added to the mayor’s proposed dip into reserves of $6.4 million.
Revenue from property taxes is estimated at $127 million in Dickinson’s budget.
Tatta reasoned that it was an easy way to give money back to the taxpayers, after the most recent town-wide revaluation that raised property values and therefore property taxes. She also cited a 53rd pay week that increases salaries and wages in most departments, but that argument was disproved by Comptroller James Bowes.
Tatta maintained her position, saying that historically, the town doesn’t come close to using all the money it allocates from reserves annually.Credit rating
At the Thursday night meeting, Councilors Tom Laffin and Chris Shortell asked how a lower amount in the unassigned fund balance, currently $16 million, would affect the town’s credit rating and ability to get a low interest rate on bonds.
Wallingford’s credit rating was downgraded in 2019 by Moody’s Investors Service. Wallingford had held a Aaa rating for several years, but Moody’s assigned the town an Aa1 rating, citing the town’s two operating deficits in a row, which means the town was dipping into reserves instead of building them up.
Bowes said credit rating agencies like to see municipalities have 10 percent to 15 percent of their entire budget, including schools, classified as unassigned — the amount of reserves that are above and beyond everything that has been legally bound.
The town’s unassigned fund balance in 2019-20 decreased by approximately $510,000, he said.
Another decline in Wallingford’s credit rating means the town would be selling bonds, just more expensively or with more interest.
Dickinson said that if the town’s bond rating continues to fall, it would shake the taxpayers’ confidence and trust in government.
“Government should make every effort to maintain the trust to the public,” he said, “and some of that is supplied by what outsiders — credit rating agencies, auditors, others from outside with expertise — how they view us and our management in general. That is worth its weight in gold.” Community Pool
The council also voted 5-2 in favor of an amendment proposed by Councilor Vincent Testa that creates a fund account of $1 million to act as a down payment on Community Pool renovations. The money will come from the town Electric Division’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) of $1.8 million.
It was the second change to the budget that used Electric Division PILOT funds. Earlier in the meeting, the council approved Councilor Jason Zandri’s motion to add $60,000 to the Parks and Recreation department’s budget for pickleball courts at Harrison Park, also to be paid for out of Electric Division PILOT funds.
The Electric Division’s PILOT payment historically has been placed into the Capital and Nonrecurring Expenditure Fund account to pay for capital improvements, including road paving, sidewalk repair or park improvements.
Several closed-out projects — some dating back to the 1960s — have unspent residual, or leftover, funds. Testa said that amount may soon reach about $2.4 million.
Although money potentially can be moved around within Cap and Non and utilized for other projects, funds cannot be taken out once they are there, as per the Town Charter.
“Let’s use the money we have sitting for Community Pool,” he said, “keeping in mind when we do Community Pool, we could still end up bonding the whole thing, and revert this money to some other capital projects that would make everybody happy. But what it does do, is it philosophically commits us to doing Community Pool.”
Tatta, who voted against the Community Pool plan, said that she’s not sure if the proposal would accomplish its intent to push the pool project along. She also said that she’s “not 100 percent convinced that the majority of the people in town want the pool.”
“I just want to make sure that (spending) a million dollars of ratepayer money, or taxpayer money, (on Community Pool) is something that the town really wants, because that is a huge amount of money that the taxpayers, or the ratepayers, put in,” she said.
Chairman Vincent Cervoni called Testa’s motion “a political statement.”
“It’s a small fraction of the money that we need to get there,” he said. The pool renovation project presented last year would have cost $7.4 million.
“We’re going to be bonding for it anyway,” Cervoni said, “and I don’t know why we wouldn’t do it that way, in light of the fact that interest rates continue to be projected to be so low.”
Councilor Joe Marrone said he agreed with the spirit of Testa’s motion, and called on councilors and town administrators to be upfront if they are not in favor of keeping Community Pool.
“I think if you have concerns about the pool, then just say you have concerns about the pool, and let’s not make this about something other than just the pool,” he said. “It is certainly not as important as the police or fire (departments), but I think it is a public service, like any of the other parks that we have.”