By Mike Brodinsky
The bipartisan 7-2 vote by the Wallingford Town Council that froze the mill rate and overturned the mayor's veto of the town's new budget marks the end of the Dickinson era. During that era, the mayor was persuasive. He could influence enough councilors so he could get what he wanted. He wouldn't lose important votes. He, but mostly his likeable staffers speaking on his behalf, had plausible arguments for his decisions. And, aided by a strong-mayor form of town charter, all matters were under the mayor's tight control. Whether he was right or whether he was wrong, he was invincible. But, no longer.
When a mill-rate-freeze was within the mayor's reach in June, and he opposed it with his veto, his timeworn, dogmatic arguments supporting a tax increase had lost their punch. They didn't make enough sense. But perhaps more importantly, during the budget process, instances of questionable management came to light, and they could no longer be ignored. So when the mayor and his surrogates tried to defend the indefensible, their arguments fell flat.
Revelations about the Capital and Non-Recurring Fund were damning. Money was appropriated to the fund faster than it could be spent. Cash was piling up, sitting around unused for a much longer time than any responsible manager would tolerate. (The oldest appropriation dates back to 2010.) The mayor refused to free up monies in the fund that, by charter, were supposed to lapse and be used for other purposes. And finally, appropriations to the fund, which by law were supposed to be for specific projects, were allocated instead for general programs that linger on and on.
These failings and the discovery of unallocated cash in the fund, which since the 1960's had grown to $1.2 million without being reported, should be too much for any council of any political stripe to bear. And so it was with this council. With its budget, the council forced the administration to finally use some of that old money in the fund, by putting less new money into it. The money that the council didn't have to add to the Capital and Non-Recurring Fund was used instead to help save taxes. And so common sense prevailed over habit and ideology.
Supporters of the mayor may be tempted to put these issues in a false light. So let's clear up some details to make sure that doesn't happen. Both the mayor's budget, and the council's budget, appropriated from the electric division to the general fund exactly the same amount of money. An appropriation from the electric division is done every year, and it's called a payment in lieu of taxes. It's routine. The council's action, therefore, put no more pressure on electric rates than the mayor's proposal. Its plan, although different from the mayor's traditional method, was more rational than the mayor's because it put money from the electric division to better use. Any suggestion that the council shifted some new burden to the electric division or that the council engaged in a "shell game" is poppycock.
The council's other strategy to save taxes was to tighten up some department budgets that had histories of being overfunded. The council's plan carefully selected these budgets, analyzed their spending track records, and searched for sums that were budgeted but consistently unspent in past years. Then, it subtracted only a fraction of that excess money in order to save taxes. The council's action, therefore, was modest and surgical rather than arbitrary and draconian.
This does put a little extra pressure on some department heads to be more mindful of money throughout the year, but that's a good thing. And if a department runs into some bad luck and needs more, it can always (1) request a transfer of funds from within their own department; (2) ask for additional sums from the contingency account; or (3) seek an appropriation from the general fund. We all know that critical services will always be funded, and scare tactics are no longer welcome.
This year, 7 councilors showed independence from the administration and approved a budget that was better than the mayor's. If the mayor can't see that, and if he refuses to remedy the mistakes and misjudgments made in the Capital and Non-Recurring Fund, it's time for a new, post-Dickinson era to begin in earnest. Taxpayers now see that the town's finances can be managed better than the mayor has managed them over the years. The council, without meaning to, sent him that message.
Mike Brodinsky is a former Wallingford town councilor and host of the “Citizen Mike” show on WPAA-TV.