As Published in the Record Journal Sunday April 18, 2010
By Dave Moran
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WALLINGFORD — Amid sizable cuts to both the Board of Education and general government budgets for 2010-11 and a proposed nearly four percent tax hike, there’s a relatively small item that could lead to big savings in the future.
In an effort to reduce budget costs and tackle some looming capital projects, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. has proposed using an estimated $5 million payment the town expects later this year from the Connecticut Resources Recovery Project to fund a number of infrastructure improvements for the town and school system. The items do not count against his $141.5 million budget proposal because they are classified as capital expenses.
Last year, the town received a $7.2 million surplus payment from CRRA, which owns a trash-to-energy facility on South Cherry Street that is used by Wallingford and surrounding towns.
Facing requests that he apply at least some of that money to his budget proposal last year to reduce the tax rate, Dickinson, a Republican, instead reserved it for the purchase of a new fire truck and the construction of a new station for the North Farms Fire Department, a project that still lacks a timetable for completion. This year, Dickinson opted to remove a number of capital item requests from the budget requests of several departments and fund them separately through the surplus payment, thus reducing the town’s overall budget and the amount of taxpayer dollars needed to fund it.
“It’s one-time money, so we certainly didn’t want it to impact the operational budget because it won’t replace itself,” Dickinson said about his decision to use CRRA funds for capital improvements. “It seemed appropriate to spend the money on capital items that are necessary and won’t repeat.”
Comptroller James Bowes said although the expected payment is not being applied directly to the budget, it will still lead to savings in future budget years by eliminating a number of capital projects that would need to be funded through future budgets.
“We aren’t going out and looking for items to spend money on,” Bowes said. “We are addressing needs that are coming in next year’s budget and very shortly thereafter that we’re going to have to attack through taxpayer dollars if we don’t utilize these funds.”
The CRRA distribution will pay for two new snow plow trucks for the Public Works Department, a new ambulance for the Fire Department and roof replacements to both fire and police headquarters.
But the bulk of it, more than $1.2 million, will be used to fund improvements to the school system, including new bleachers for Mark T. Sheehan High School, boiler repairs for several schools and a $600,000 energy efficiency retrofit project that is forecasted to shave almost $500,000 from the system’s annual utilities costs.
Thomas Hennessey, Board of Education chairman, said those capital improvements will not have to be accounted for by the system in future budgets and that the energy savings project will yield immediate savings. Both help to cushion a more than $2.5 million reduction that Dickinson made to the school system’s budget request, he said.
“The energy stuff will save us hard money eventually, because every year we are going to be spending less and less money,” said Hennessey, a Republican. “The capital improvements are things that we would have had to do eventually.”
John Sullivan, a Democratic councilor, said he supported Dickinson’s use of the CRRA funds because even though the money is not being injected directly into the town’s operating budget, it is being used to remove a number of costly capital projects from the upcoming and future budget years.
“We don’t have to use tax dollars to pay for those items,” Sullivan said.
Meriden and Cheshire, which also took part in the CRRA trash disposal project that led to the surplus accounts, don’t plan to use any of the surplus money to fund their general operating budgets either.
Cheshire plans to bolster several of its reserve funds, like pension contributions and debt service, while Meriden wants to add the money to its undesignated reserves in an effort to strengthen the city’s bond rating, which appears set for an upgrade, city officials said Friday.
“Meriden is still in a situation where we believe there is a need to build the reserves a bit higher than where they are presently, so we’re not budgeting the CRRA money,” City Manager Lawrence Kendzior said.
Paul Nonnenmacher, the resource authority’s director of public affairs, said there is no timetable for when the surplus funds might be distributed to the town. Dickinson said that Wallingford will not implement any of the capital improvement projects until it receives the funds.