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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wallingford Town Council passes budget by 6-3 vote

As published in the Record Journal Wednesday May 9, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal Staff

WALLINGFORD — After more than a month of sometimes contentious budget workshops, the Town Council passed Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.‘s $145.1 million budget Tuesday night with comparatively little conversation.

The 2012-13 budget reflects an increase of $3,669,201 from that of the current fiscal year and will raise the town’s tax rate to 25.98 mills, up 0.76 mills. When presenting the package in early April, Dickinson said a resident who owns a house assessed at $191,000 will now pay $145 more each year in property taxes.

The mayor blamed the tax increase on an overall poor economy in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. He said reduced state and federal revenue — along with little growth in the town’s grand list, fewer fees for construction permits and lower interest rates on investments — amounted to significantly less revenue for the town.

“All of those things contribute to not as much money — we’ve had to reduce staff, cut back on a number of areas in expenditures. So far I don’t see a change in that, which is troubling,” Dickinson said. The final vote was 6-3 in favor of the budget. Republican Councilors John LeTourneau, Craig Fishbein, and Democrat Nicholas Economopoulos voted against the budget. Fishbein and Economopoulos had said they planned to reject it due to philosophical differences. LeTourneau, following the meeting, said he had voted no in error during a lengthy list of roll call votes.

Passage of the plan, along with an ordinance the council unanimously approved earlier in the meeting, established an enterprise fund for the town’s ambulance service. The move separates the emergency transport service’s finances from those of the Fire Department, and calls for putting a second town ambulance into service during 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

The measure has been warmly received by town councilors of both parties since Dickinson presented it in April.

“This is a fantastic proposition, setting it up to be as self sustaining as much as possible. It’s absolutely needed when you consider the aging population of the town,” said Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri.

Some residents called into question the new ambulance division’s stated plans to start enlisting a collection agency to retrieve funds from non-paying customers. Currently the Fire Department has only a billing service.

“We’re hitting these people who can least afford it,” said Wes Lubee during a public hearing on the ordinance during the meeting, saying that people who aren’t paying are uninsured, and that insurance companies likely negotiate prices to less than the uninsured pay. “We cannot operate with a system that is based on only billing insurance companies,” Dickinson said. “If we do that, insurance companies will not continue to pay.”

Councilors removed a $1,000 addition that they had previously approved in budget workshops for Internet in the Planning and Zoning Department with an amendment proposed by Republican Tom Laffin. Many said that they believed in providing greater Internet access for town staff, but that $1,000 is not enough for a real effort in that direction.

“This is like shooting a single flare into a cave,” said Republican Councilor Vincent Cervoni. “This isn’t the appropriate way to get technology into Town Hall.”

Asked by Sullivan whether he would allow an earmarked $1,000 to be used for Internet access in Planning and Zoning, Dickinson said he would not.

Several councilors said they planned to pick up the issue later on, citing interest in establishing a five-year plan for technology. The amendment passed 7-2, with LeTourneau and Fishbein as the no votes.

Laffin received strong pushback when making a second amendment to cut the other addition councilors had made to the budget, having the R Band play at the town’s Fourth of July celebration. The performance would cost $5,000 — the money would not be an addition to the budget, but use most of a $6,000 savings provided by a low bid on portable toilets already budgeted at a higher rate for the event.

Councilors voted Laffin and Cervoni down 7-2 to retain the band.

“This is our nation’s birthday,” Fishbein said. “That’s important to me, and a traditional thing that we’ve done for many decades.”