By Stephen Knight
Last Tuesday night, the Wallingford Town Council passed their version of the annual budget by a margin of 6-3. The six councilors supported a series of amendments that changed the budget from a .52 mill increase to a .13 mill decrease. This was hailed by all six of them as a triumph, but I see it as an unfortunate politically driven exercise in shortsighted financial governance.
On the surface and on your television screens, they hope this plays out as them being the hard-nosed champions of the taxpayer. However, the fact is that these changes will ultimately prove to be a disservice to those same taxpayers, because this fiscal shell game weakens the entire municipal government and its ability to deliver quality services and maintain town infrastructure. Here are four reasons why:
Reducing reserve funds: As reported in a May 5th R-J article about the May 3rd council meeting, “Comptroller Tim Sena said credit agencies have already expressed concerns about the amount of reserves the town has relative to its spending ….” He was quoted as saying: “Right now, we’re looking at a $180 million budget, our fund balance should be around $18 million undesignated and we’re at $14 (million) and this [budget amendment] is taking $1.5 million out of that.”
Democrats for years and years have pooh-poohed this thinking as irrelevant, but it isn’t. The town is slated to borrow up to $20 million for the new police station. Another downgrade of the town’s credit rating would end up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra interest payments over the life of those bonds. That’s just plain false economy. Ultimately, it’s tantamount to a secret tax increase levied by the actions of six present-day town councilors on all future taxpayers.
Ignoring inflation: Several councilors claimed that they were helping taxpayers deal with the 8.5% inflation hitting everyone. Okay, fine, but they act as if the Town of Wallingford were immune to the inflationary economic forces facing everyone. What do they suppose the BOE and general government contingency budget lines that they slashed by $350,000 are for? Where will the money come from to pay this “inflation tax?”
The myth that all services will continue: As Councilor Autumn Allinson articulated in her well-thought-out opposition to the cuts, services may continue per se, but the amount and quality of those services will be negatively impacted. If this Town Council budget were to survive, where will the money for these required increases come from? Reduced hiring? Postponed maintenance of town infrastructure?
This is when the difference between the legislative and executive branches of government becomes obvious. The Town Council can squeeze and squeeze money out of an annual budget to make themselves look prudent and champions of the taxpayers, but it is the Mayor’s Office and the town departments that actually have to provide the municipal services in the quantity and quality that residents expect and deserve.
Hail bipartisanship!: In the current political environment, any legislation that is passed with bipartisan support is assumed to be good and wise. The six town councilors spent a lot of time last Tuesday night heaping praise on each other and acclaiming how wonderful was their bipartisan approach. According to them, party politics was graciously put aside and everyone worked “for the people.” After all, members of both parties supported it, so whatever product emerges must be good.
Who’s kidding who? First of all, votes breaking down on party lines aren’t inherently bad. In many cases, deep and legitimate differences in opinion exist as to what is the best solution to a problem. Secondly, politics can be bipartisan if the individuals involved have the same goals. In this case, let’s be naïve and assume that these six councilors just happen to agree that this goal of no tax increases is the best outcome for the town. Fair enough.
But consider this: The Democrat party already has one announced candidate for mayor (okay, he’s only established an “exploratory committee,” whatever the heck that is). The Republicans, on the other hand, may be speculating that Mayor Dickinson either will call it a day after this term, or can be weakened significantly enough to challenge him should he wish to run again. And the three Democrats look at this development as a gift from above. Of course they’ll help.
There are many sound reasons for Mayor Dickinson to veto this legislation. Even Councilor Marrone, one of the six that voted for these amendments, expects that he will and they won’t have the votes to override that veto. Fortunately, there are three Wallingford town councilors who can clearly see the damage to town finances and town services that this imprudent slashing of funds would bring.
Thank you to Councilors Cervoni, Laffin and, especially, freshman Autumn Allinson for keeping the health of Wallingford municipal government paramount. May you be rewarded for your good judgment.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.