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Monday, January 30, 2012

Keeping jobs unfilled yields town surplus

As published in the Record Journal, Thursday January 26, 2012

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD — The town ended the 2010-11 fiscal year with a surplus largely due to town employee positions’ remaining unfilled, a practice that has become more common in tough fiscal times. According to an audit of Wallingford’s finances released in December, the town ended the fiscal year $671,000 in the black. But a large amount of the surplus can be attributed to the retirement of 10 town employees who weren’t replaced.

“No amounts were budgeted for 10 open positions in the General Government: three in Public Works, three in the Comptroller’s office and four police officers,” the audit said. “These positions were vacated by retired employees and will probably remain unfilled until the economy recovers.”

In the current fiscal year, the Police Department’s salaries budget was cut by $170,106. Police Chief Douglas Dortenzio said Wednesday he wouldn’t be asking for additional officers in next year’s budget. The request has been denied in the past. The department has 71 sworn officers, including Dortenzio, and a total of 91 positions including clerical staff.

Dortenzio said that when a position remains vacant for a year, it is generally eliminated from the budget. Staffing is down about 6 percent from a couple of years ago, he said.

The department has had to shift officers around and make changes, including reducing the size of the detective bureau, to get more uniformed officers on the street.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” Dortenzio said. But, he noted, “the town has grown, and we have not kept pace.”

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said that, in tough economic times, the town has had to cut back to avoid increases in taxes, and he doesn’t expect many new hires.

“Chances are, some, if not all of these positions will remain unfilled,” Dickinson said. “The police no longer has a DARE program; Public Works has lost positions that handled landscaping duties.” But John Sullivan, a Democratic town councilor, said he doesn’t think a surplus matters if it comes at the expense of public safety officers.

“I always have concerns about police, fire and emergency response,” he said.

According to the audit, public safety expenditures in 2010-11 were $708,000 below budget due to $412,000 less in police wages, “due to the time lag in replacing employees who retired or resigned and less overtime.”

Dickinson said that the town isn’t getting any new money, and that, short of a large increase in the grand list, services have to be trimmed.

He said the departments have been continuing to provide services but that they’ve had to “get back to core missions.”

“Just the essentials,” Dickinson said.

Sullivan said that other budgets have ended in a surplus for similar reasons, and the extra money isn’t always a good sign. “This is typical every budget year,” he said. “And who is the big loser? The people in Wallingford.”

Dickinson countered by saying that the $671,000 surplus didn’t tell the whole story, and that $4 million to $5 million of the town’s general fund was used to cover expenses and stave off a tax increase.

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