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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wallingford fuel crisis program gets more money

As published in the Record Journal Wednesday February 15, 2012

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

WALLINGFORD — To address a growing demand, the town has set aside an additional $5,000 for its fuel crisis program, which distributes money to low-income residents who need help paying heating bills.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. requested the money in a letter to the Town Council on Feb. 1 and the funds were approved at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

“Due to the reduction in state energy assistance, the current unemployment situation within our community and the rising costs of fuel prices, we have experienced a large number of needy individuals utilizing the Fuel Crisis program,” Dickinson wrote.

The need locally has been exacerbated by cuts in federal and state fuel aid. Last year, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, was funded at $4.701 billion, with more than $100 million going to Connecticut. This year, federal officials proposed $2.570 billion for the program, a cut of nearly 50 percent. The program was eventually funded at $3.472 billion. Of these funds, Connecticut received $79.531 million.

U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, a New Haven Democrat whose 3rd District includes Wallingford, said when the funds were announced in December that she was disappointed in the cuts.

“In this difficult economy, with sky-high energy prices and cold winters, families throughout the country rely on the LIHEAP program,” De-Lauro said at the time in a statement. “I believe that we have a moral obligation to care for our most vulnerable citizens, and that means fully funding the LIHEAP program. ... We cannot leave American families out in the cold.”

Wallingford isn’t alone in an increased demand for fuel assistance. Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, which helps low-income residents with their heating bills, said demand is as high as it was last year, but there’s less money to go around.

“We’ve had federal benefits reduced by $30 million,” she said.

Wrice said residents have been fortunate that this winter has been warmer than last, but there hasn’t been a drop-off in fuel aid demand.

“If we had a winter like last year, it would be a disaster,” she said. “The economy hasn’t bounced back. It could have been a lot worse. The weather kept people safe.”

The Wallingford Fuel Crisis Program account was funded in the amount of $15,589 from town money and private donations for the current fiscal year. As as of Feb. 1, $14,907 had been distributed, leaving little money to spare. “We are very concerned about meeting the fuel needs of a number of our residents and believe that this appropriation will allow us to provide assistance through the remainder of the fiscal year,” Dickinson wrote.

Menzo says 3% needed just to keep service level

As published in the Record Journal, Tuesday February 14, 2012

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

WALLINGFORD — With a large drop-off in federal funding from a year ago, and the rising costs of insurance and supplies, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo says the education budget needs to increase by 3.05 percent just to keep services at the current level.

The Board of Education is preparing to present its budget to Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. and is asking for a 3.91 increase overall, or $3,393,634, in additional funding. The money consists of a “sustained services” budget — the cost to operate the schools at their current level — and select items from the school board’s strategic plan. But Menzo says the figure is deceiving, because a federal jobs grant worth $1,295,275 won’t be available this year, creating an immediate shortfall.

Menzo said the Board of Education recommended splitting the use of the grant over two years. To stave off an increase in taxes, Dickinson required the district to spend all the money in 2011-12.

“Now the burden is on this year,” Menzo said. Financially, the district is ahead of where Menzo said it would be a year ago, when he argued to split the grant over two budgets and projected a deficit of more than $2 million. Other savings have been found, but still, if the school budget gets no increase, there will be an automatic gap of $1.3 million that must be filled. “If appropriate funding is not provided, there will be significant services that will have to be reduced or eliminated,” Menzo said.

Democratic Board of Education member Michael Votto said the board has scrutinized the budget and that there are no unnecessary costs. A portion of the money has gone to pay for unfunded state mandates, Votto said.

Votto said he realizes that with a small increase in the grand list, there isn’t new money available, and the increase in the education budget could require a tax increase.

“If we have to raise taxes to help education, I think that’s the best place to put it,” he said. “Education is a priority to prepare our kids for the world.”

Votto said that with other costs going up, “I don’t know how people expect taxes won’t go up.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Roxane McKay said a lot of hard work went into this year’s budget, and she had confidence in the proposal the board would bring to the mayor. McKay said that some of the items included for maintenance — such as repairing cracked sidewalks and removing asbestos — are essential for safety concerns.

With the jobs grant taken out of the equation, the school board is asking for $2,100,408, or about a 2.42 percent increase in new funds from the town.

Menzo said that some of the increase covers additions to the budget — such as adding lacrosse as a sport at the high schools and introducing world language, math and career and technical education coordinators for all the district’s schools — but a large portion is for employee benefits and non-certified salaries. Teachers and administrators took a pay freeze in the first year of a three-year contract negotiated last fall.

As for the strategic plan, Menzo said that the board and school administrators realize they won’t be able to move forward with every aspect of it. Still, money is being put toward technology and maintenance items that are part of the plan, though it is coming from the district’s unencumbered fund balance, or monies left over from last year’s budget.

“It might take longer to get there, but we are moving forward,” Menzo said. McKay said she felt the board had been good stewards of town money, and that no increase or a smaller increase could mean higher costs down the road. As a taxpayer, she said she weighs the cost to townspeople versus the education benefit to the schoolchildren. “It’s a tough balancing act,” she said.

The school board will meet Feb. 27 to adopt a budget and present it to the mayor on March 1.