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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wallingford Grand list is up, but not economic optimism

As published in the Record Journal, Wednesday January 30, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD – Its grand list grew slightly last year, but officials say the town still hasn’t experienced widespread economic recovery.

The net taxable grand list grew by $38.8 million, or 0.93 percent, in 2012. At the current tax rate of 25.98 mills, the town would receive about $1 million more in tax revenue for the 2013-14 budget. One mill represents $1 in tax on every $1,000 of assessed value.

The annual grand list is a tally of all taxable property in town, including real estate, motor vehicles and personal property: equipment and machinery used by businesses.

Assessor Shelby P. Jackson III attributed much of this year’s growth to the completion of the Campus at Greenhill, at 110 Leigus Road. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield relocated its headquarters to the office building and brought about 850 employees to the site.

“Now fully constructed, this property has added $10,184,300 in assessed value to the grand list,” Jackson wrote in a letter to Comptroller James Bowes.

But Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said the economy is still struggling.

“I don’t think there’s been a recovery,” he said. “It’s stabilized at a new level.”

Wallingford saw a 0.78 percent decline in the motor vehicle grand list, something Jackson said hasn’t been seen in previous years. There were 469 fewer vehicles registered in town in 2012 than in 2011. But Jackson said neighboring towns, including Cheshire and Meriden, have seen shrinkage in their motor vehicle tax rolls.

Taxable real estate rose by 0.81 percent and personal property increased by 4.16 percent.

In addition to the Campus at Greenhill, Jackson mentioned a few other commercial properties built in the past year, including a CVS, a TD Bank branch and a retail plaza anchored by a Naugatuck Savings Bank branch, all of which were built on Route 5.

“Things are looking a little bit better,” Jackson said.

“We’re holding our own,” Bowes said. “It’s nothing terrible, but nothing great.”

Dickinson said the grand list is key to setting the budget for the next fiscal year. While the town knows how much money it will receive from local tax revenue, officials won’t know if state aid will be cut this year until Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveils his budget next month.

Dickinson expects another difficult budgeting process.

“Municipal aid is on the table,” he said. “You don’t have to take a course in reading tea leaves to know it’s going to be a challenge.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

Editorial - Local bidders

As published in the Record Journal Monday January 28, 2013

If worded carefully, an ordinance allowing for local bidder preference in awarding municipal contracts would have benefited Wallingford. Town councilors rejected this concept on Jan. 22, after discussing it in previous meetings. The proposed guideline would grant local companies an advantage in seeking contracts put out to bid by Wallingford. If a business based in the municipality did not offer the lowest price, but came within a certain percentage of this bottom figure, the business could match the low bid and win the contract.

There are downsides. Aware of a local-preference clause, out-of-town companies might not make bids. This could mean fewer businesses competing for a contract and, thus, potentially higher costs paid by Wallingford for work.

Another problem, alertly brought up by Mayor William Dickinson, would be how to conclude which companies are and are not locally based. But, as wisely suggested by Councilman Jason Zandri, checking business filings with the state could definitively determine where a company is technically located.

Moreover, it’s unclear whether bids would actually dwindle after establishment of a local-preference ordinance. In Connecticut, 29 percent of municipalities have enacted a similar law, including Meriden and North Haven. And, as argued by Councilman Craig Fishbein, because of these existing ordinances, Wallingford companies could be losing out on contracts in nearby towns and cities, and, therefore, could use additional help in their own zip code.

As presented in our news account of Dec. 22, local preference protocols in Meriden and North Haven are reasonably worded. In Meriden, to enact the program, a city-based company’s bid cannot be more than 10 percent higher than the bottom bid. In North Haven, a local business’ bid has to be within 10 percent of the lowest on items under $1 million, 5 percent of purchases between $1 million and $5 million, and 3 percent on anything more than $5 million.

Which is to say that this can be done, if implemented correctly. Based on Meriden and North Haven laws, the key is to retain a fair, fighting chance for bidders from outside municipal borders. Those two civic governments give local businesses only a marginal advantage, as not to foster favoritism or impinge greatly upon free market economics. Should Wallingford leaders seek a boost for in-town companies — and why wouldn’t they? — they could do so with similarly worded regulations.

This is a concept councilors should reconsider. By granting local businesses a second chance to match low bids under still competitive circumstances, councilors could direct taxpayer money toward town based companies, allowing Wallingford to support better its own economy.

Wallingford Local preference proposal fails

As published in the Record Journal, Thursday January 24, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD - A proposal to give local companies preference on municipal contracts died recently when the Town Council’s Ordinance Committee declined to pursue the issue further.

Under the proposal, bids on contracts would be invited as usual. If a local company was not the low bidder, but within a certain percentage of the lowest bid, the firm would be awarded the contract at the lowest bid price.

Bill Abildgaard, a town resident and owner of Leed Construction, asked councilors last month for the ordinance change, reviving a discussion that began in February 2012.

“When you award to a local contractor or a local business, that money stays in town,” he said. “We buy our trucks from Valenti. We buy our insurance from a local insurance company. Most of our supplies are from Wallingford, our employees are from Wallingford.”

But Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau said he was worried a local preference would turn away out-of-town firms from bidding on municipal projects, leading to less competition and ultimately higher costs to the town.

“If they aren’t bidding on a level playing field, then they might think twice about submitting a bid,” he said.

About 29 percent of Connecticut’s municipalities, including North Haven, Meriden, Middletown and Hamden, have some sort of local bidder preference program, In Meriden, a city-based company’s bid cannot be more than 10percent higher than the lowest bid to enact the program.

Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein said Wallingford has taken steps to help local companies, inserting language in bidding ordinances that says the town must give preference to local firms on projects that are below the bid threshold of $7,500.

Fishbein said he hopes to enlist help from the town’s legislative delegation to propose that the state abolish local bidding preferences. He said he had heard from local contractors who lost work in other towns despite submitting the lowest bid.

“I found out we are surrounded by towns that have these preferences,” Fishbein said. “It’s being used against our people.”

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Advocates: Don’t ignore housing - Affordable homes called necessary in new-look downtowns

As published in the Record Journal, Saturday January 26, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD - The New Haven-to-Springfield commuter rail line will present opportunities for new businesses in downtown Meriden and Wallingford, but housing advocates say developers must also look to include affordable housing.

“You can’t talk about transit without talking about housing,” Shelby Mertes, chief policy analyst for the Partnership for Strong Communities, said Friday during a meeting of the Meriden-Wallingford Coalition on Housing.

Meriden and Wallingford officials have already begun planning downtown zoning changes.

In Wallingford, the Planning and Zoning Commission is fine-tuning a proposal for an Incentive Housing Zone, which would allow high-density development but require some affordable housing.

Meriden officials have drawn up five districts in the area around the train station. Vacant properties on Hanover Street and Cook Avenue, including the site of the recently razed former Factory H and an old medical office building, would be redeveloped into mixed-use, residential properties.

Robyn-Jay Bage, chairwoman of the Meriden-Wallingford Coalition on Housing Steering Committee, said it’s important to clarify the difference between affordable housing and federally subsidized low income housing. Affordable housing refers to privately built units that are rented at a rate deemed reasonable for people making 80 percent or less of the area median income.

“These are our children, our employees, our customers and other similar groups,” Bage said. “They need places to live.”

Mertes said one way to make affordable housing more palatable to a community is to mix it with market rate housing. He compared it to including spinach in lasagna to get someone to eat spinach.

“We all know how difficult it is to get kids, and even some adults, to eat their vegetables,” Mertes said. “Mixed-income housing is embraced by communities.”

Developers can build more units on a smaller piece of land in a mixed-use development. The profits from the market-rate units help subsidize the lower rents or mortgages for the affordable units.

Mertes said mass transit gives people more money to spend in a community. If someone living near the train station doesn’t need to pay for a car, that extra money can be spent at local businesses.

“It puts more money in the economy,” he said.

In the current economy, there’s a lot of demand for smaller, more energy-efficient housing, Mertes said.

But mass transit isn’t for everyone. Mertes said it is important when developing a downtown around the commuter rail to take into consideration who uses mass transportation most: younger people, renters and those with a lower income.

Sean Moore, president of the Greater Meriden Chamber of Commerce, said it is important to start preparing for the rail line, which will begin service in 2016. The New Haven-to-Hartford portion is already fully funded.

“This opportunity obligates us to create amenities for these people,” he said. “The folks who live in these districts are the ones that give us life.”

“This is a once-in-a generation opportunity,” said Sue Murphy, executive director of the Liberty Bank Foundation and a member of the Meriden-Wallingford Coalition on Housing.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wallingford Dems question GOP tactic

As published in the Record Journal, Thursday January 24, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD - The Democratic town chairman Wednesday called Republican town councilors “disrespectful” for halting debate during this week’s Town Council meeting without letting a Democratic colleague finish his thoughts.

Republicans invoked an infrequently used rule known as “calling the question.” If two thirds of the council supports the motion — the Republicans hold a 6-3 majority — debate is immediately ended and the pending matter is put to a vote.

Republican Thomas Laffin made the motion Tuesday night after about 45 minutes of debate on a proposal by Democrat Jason Zandri to create a committee to investigate powering town-owned buildings for use as shelters during storms with widespread power outages. Zandri shared his thoughts but deferred to other councilors and expected to speak on the subject a second time. However, Laffin moved to call the question before Zandri’s turn came around again.

“What I find reprehensible and disrespectful is not to have allowed Jason to continue asking questions,” said Democratic Town Chairman Vincent Avallone. “It was clear he was going to ask further questions.”

Laffin said Wednesday that he made the motion after giving other councilors a chance to speak because the debate had strayed from Zandri’s motion to a general discussion about emergency preparedness.

“Nobody was talking about the actual motion,” Laffin said. “They were talking in circles.”

Zandri said he was unhappy he hadn’t received a chance to continue his comments, but he was more upset that the public didn’t have a chance to speak on the issue.

“The Republicans don’t care about what the people have to say,” he said. “Just because it’s proper procedurally doesn’t make it the right thing to do.”

Republican John Le-Tourneau said Laffin’s motion hadn’t suppressed debate. He said the town-owned Electric Division is well known for keeping power running during storms and Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said that if the town were to experience a total blackout, crews would be able to restore power to a school for use as a shelter quickly.

“The chances of something catastrophic like that happening in Wallingford is so remote,” LeTourneau said. “We could have sat there all night and talked about hypothetical (situations). It was time to end it.”

But Democratic Councilor John Sullivan said debate was cut short.

“Debate is a part of government we cannot suppress,” he said. “It (calling the question) should be a last resort. It seems the right side of the aisle is using it as a tool to squash debate.”

Avallone, who has been observing the council for about 20 years, said he’s seen more instances of calling the question this term than he has in the past two decades.

“It’s a political move to cut off discussion on issues that are important to the public,” he said.

Laffin said that if Zandri wanted information about emergency preparedness he could have requested it from Dickinson or department heads over the telephone or by setting up a meeting. Zandri said he had talked with Emergency Management Director Ernest Frattini before the meeting and placed the item on the agenda because he believes the town’s emergency preparedness plans are lacking.

Laffin also accused the Democrat, who is planning to run for mayor this fall, of using his seat on the Town Council and the forum the meeting provided for political posturing.

Zandri said he’s a councilor first and a mayoral candidate second.

“I have a job to do on behalf of the people who voted me in and I’m going to continue to do it,” he said.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Generator plan divides town council

As published in the Record Journal, Wednesday January 23, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD - A discussion about purchasing generators to power the town’s high schools for use as shelters during widespread power outages broke down into a partisan debate at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting.

Democrat Jason Zandri proposed forming an “Emergency and Alternative Power Review Committee” to investigate options to power the two schools, or other town-owned facilities, for use as shelters. The town has just one shelter with generator power: the old Cook Hill Volunteer Fire Station, which can hold 40 people.

“Our emergency operations plan is not set up to accommodate a large number of residents,” said Democratic Councilor John Sullivan.

But Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said the chances of the town experiencing massive outages were slim. He said the town would likely be able to restore power to a school quickly for use as a shelter.

“The chance we would not be able to energize one of the schools is virtually impossible,” Dickinson said. “The chance of us being completely out is remote.”

After about 45 minutes of discussion between councilors, Dickinson and Emergency Management Director Ernest Frattini, Republican Councilor Thomas Laffin made a motion to call the question to a vote. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, any member of a body that operates under the rules can make such a motion, effectively ceasing debate and putting the issue to a vote if two-thirds of the body agrees.

Laffin said town staff were already undertaking many of the duties that the committee Zandri proposed would be tasked with. “I don’t want to waste another hour talking about something that’s already been done,” Laffin said.

The motion to call Zandri’s proposal to a vote passed 6-3 along party lines, with Democrats, including Zandri, saying they hadn’t been given an opportunity to fully speak on the matter. Democrat Nicholas Economopoulos said the Republican majority was stifling debate, pointing to a member of the public who had approached the microphone, wishing to weigh in.

“We’re not stifling anyone,” said Republican Chairman Robert Parisi. “We live by rules.”

Zandri said he was upset because he had cut his initial comments short to let other councilors weigh in and believed he would have another chance to speak.

“I’m never going to give up my right to speak at this table again,” he said.

In other business, the council approved a two-year contract for management employees across all town departments, with a 1.75 percent pay increase in the first year and a renegotiation on wages in the second year. The total cost of the raises, which cover about 75 employees, will be $35,000 this year, said Personnel Director Terence Sullivan.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Zandri: Shelter schools need power; Generators at Sheehan, LHHS would make town better prepared

As published in the Record Journal, Monday January 21, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD -  A massive storm rips through town, knocking out power to the entire community, including the shelter at Sheehan High School.

The situation may be a bit unlikely, but Democratic Town Councilor Jason Zandri wants to make sure the town is prepared for such an incident. Councilors Tuesday will discuss Zandri’s proposal to purchase generators or find alternative sources to power the town’s two high schools so they can be used as shelters in the event of town-wide outages.

“If a main feeder goes down, we’re done,” Zandri said. “I’m looking for a strategy to handle if we have a major power-loss situation.”

Emergency Management Director Ernest Frattini said none of the schools in town are generator-powered. There’s a generator at the Cook Hill Firehouse and 40 people could be sheltered there.

“I think we’ve been very lucky but there’s always that ‘what if?’ ” Frattini said. “We could get something that hits us where the whole town loses power for days.”

“We’ve never had a situation like that, but we’re not immune to it,” Zandri said.

Frattini said he was putting together his department’s budget request and he didn’t anticipating asking for a large capital expenditure like generators. But if times get better, Frattini said, he’d like to purchase large, portable generators that could be hooked up to either high school to power it for use as a shelter.

“If one school is in a danger zone, we can move it to the other one,” he said. “I’d like to have them both set up to use a generator.”

The town schools could still be used for shelters without electricity if there was a demonstrated need, Frattini said.

Shelters were set up during Hurricane Irene and an October snowstorm in 2011, but only about 15 people stayed the night during the two incidents. Shelters weren’t used during Hurricane Sandy last year.

Republican Councilor John LeTourneau said he believed it would make more sense to shelter people in the town’s volunteer fire stations than spending money on new generators.

“I think the money could be put to better use,” LeTourneau said.

LeTourneau also noted that the town, which has its own Electric Division, typically experiences fewer outages than surrounding communities serviced by Connecticut Light & Power or United Illuminating and power is often restored more quickly.

Tuesday’s Town Council meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zandri begins campaign; Dickinson undecided

As published in the Record Journal, Wednesday January 16, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD -  Democrat Jason Zandri knows the introduction of new technology to Town Hall alone isn’t enough to defeat longtime Republican Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.

In November, the 44-year old town councilor announced his intention to seek his party’s nomination for mayor. In past elections Democrats have tried, and failed, to paint Dickinson as out of touch with modern technology.

“Yes, technology is going to be part of the platform but I am far from laying all of my bets on that; leveraging technology for more ease of access, more open government, more services available will come as part of a calculated effort to streamline work that needs to be done and make our government more efficient,” Zandri wrote recently on his blog.

Zandri’s mayoral campaign held a kickoff meeting last week attended by about 20 supporters, he said.

Dickinson said Tuesday he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll run again for the seat he’s held since he won his first election in 1983.

“Right now, especially going into budgets, I’m just swamped,” he said. “It’s a decision I have to make at a point when I’m not quite so overwhelmed. Each thing has it’s time. It’s not time for me to deal with that yet.

Zandri said he wants to tackle many issues with his campaign, including the introduction of more affordable housing and lowering the income requirement for seniors to qualify for a tax credit from the town.

He’s adopted a campaign slogan of “Moving Wallingford Forward,” and is working on developing a strategic plan of where he’d like to see the town in 10 or 15 years, with visions of a proposed Incentive Housing Zone and a new commuter rail line rejuvenating the downtown.

Democratic Town Chairman Vincent Avallone said there are other important issues besides technology.

“The Incentive Housing Zone is a huge issue, the railroad is a huge issue,” Avallone said.

The message of technology has been lost with voters in previous elections, Zandri said. It’s not just about adding email and Internet access, it’s about using technology as a tool to make workers more efficient, and when possible,consolidate jobs or reduce positions through attrition.

But Dickinson said he wasn’t so sure that technology expenditures would result in savings.

“It’s something that has to be closely analyzed,” he said.

Zandri has named 25-year old David Leonardo as his campaign manager. Leonardo, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Board of Education in 2011, previously interned on John Larson’s congressional campaign and helped with the mayoral campaigns of Dan Drew in Middletown and Vincent F. Testa Jr. in Wallingford.

“I wanted a younger individual tapped into that age group that’s not represented well at election time,” Zandri said.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cuts in state aid to towns ‘inevitable,’ House speaker says

As published in the Record Journal, Saturday January 12, 2013

By Ed Jacovino

Journal Inquirer

HARTFORD — State aid to towns is going to be cut when lawmakers pass a two-year state budget this spring, the new speaker of the House of Representatives said this week.

“It’s inevitable that there are going to be some cuts,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey said in an interview with the Journal Inquirer. “I hate to say that. I’ve been a longtime advocate for protecting cities and towns and Boards of Ed from cuts in funding from the state.”

Sharkey, D-Hamden, who took the gavel as speaker when the legislative session started Wednesday, said cities and towns shouldn’t be surprised. They were spared cuts in each of the last two budget years, as lawmakers raised state taxes significantly but sought to avoid similar property-tax increases, he observed.

“I don’t think it’s news to any cities and towns and boards of education out there,” Sharkey said. “They all are very appreciative of the fact that we’ve done as much as we have to hold them harmless for the last two years.”

Lawmakers are facing projected deficits of more than $1billion in the roughly $20 billion state budget in each of the next two years.

Sharkey said the state should work with towns to “mitigate the impact” of any cuts.

The biggest grants to towns are for schools, through the $1.9 billion Education Cost Sharing program. Others are payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT grants, in which the state reimburses towns for state facilities such as prisons and airports along with other tax-exempt property, like universities and hospitals. There are a number of smaller grant programs as well.

Municipalities say cutting state grants to them means property-tax increases aren’t far behind.

“You’re transferring the state budget problems onto cities and towns and the property tax,” James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said Thursday. His group of mayors and first selectmen is going to oppose any cuts, he said.

While Finley said he’ll look to block reductions in municipal aid, he acknowledged cuts could be a bargaining chip towards the state eliminating requirements he calls “unfunded mandates” that cost towns money.

An example is a requirement to pay a “prevailing wage” for construction projects that cost more than a certain amount. Finley has been pushing for years to increase the threshold — exempting more projects from the requirement.

“Right now we’re not willing to say that we’re going to agree to municipal cuts without understanding what other efforts might be made to reduce municipal costs,” Finley said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat and former mayor of Stamford, has boasted that he closed a state budget deficit two years ago without cutting payments to municipalities. Instead, Malloy and the Democrat- controlled legislature increased state taxes and negotiated concessions with state employee unions.

Finley said that, after conversations with Malloy, the prospects for towns this year aren’t good.

“This is the first year that he hasn’t given us an unequivocal, ‘I’m not going to cut you guys.’ That’s a cause for concern,” Finley said.

Malloy, however, is still staying neutral on the issue. He has said he doesn’t “intend” to raise state taxes.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Affordable housing in Wallingford has support

As published in the Record Journal, Saturday January 12, 2013

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

Zone near train depot seems to be the spot

-  A proposed Incentive Housing Zone could rejuvenate businesses in the lower downtown area, but proponents of the plan say a key element is also the construction of new affordable housing.

“There’s a lot of young people who grew up in Wallingford who can’t afford to move back,” said Democratic Town Councilor John Sullivan.

The Incentive Housing Zone would allow developers to build high-density three- and four-story mixed-use buildings. In exchange for the increased density, 20 percent of the housing units constructed must be designated as affordable for those making 80 percent or less of the median area income.

About six percent of the town’s housing stock is considered affordable. The state has set a goal of all towns having 10 percent affordable housing.

“I believe that affordable housing is something that is very much needed in Connecticut,” said Town Planner Kacie Costello. “It serves a wide population: young people, older people that are on a fixed income and a lot of professional people between those ages.”

Local developer Liz Verna also said the town needs more affordable housing. Her firm, Verna Properties, built one of the two affordable housing developments in town. Old Oak Village, a cluster of condominiums off North Turnpike Road built in 2002, has 24 units designated as affordable.

“Connecticut is very expensive to live in,” Verna said. “Businesses aren’t going to come to Connecticut if housing costs are so high.”
The town’s other affordable housing complex, Juniper Landing, has 11 affordable units and is next to Old Oak Village, according to Costello.

Verna said many people are misinformed about affordable housing. Such developments are not government subsidized and should not be confused with low-income housing, she said. They are privately built houses, condominiums or apartments that “shall be sold or rented at, or below, prices which will preserve the units as housing for which persons and families pay 30 percent or less of their annual income, where such income is less than or equal to 80 percent of the median income,” according to state statute.
Wallingford’s median household income in 2009 was $71,117.

Costello said the current affordable housing in town was built with 50-year deed restrictions, which means if the units are sold, they must be sold at below market rate to remain affordable to prospective buyers for a half century after they are built.

“We do have affordable housing and it works very well,” said Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau.

Verna supports the Incentive Housing Zone and sees it as a way to breathe life into the downtown. Housing will bring young professionals to the area who will frequent local businesses, she said. With a new commuter rail service set to roll through town in 2016, people could live in downtown Wallingford and work in Stamford or New York, Verna said.

State Rep. Mary G. Fritz, D Wallingford, said the town has come a long way in building affordable housing in the last decade or so, pointing to Verna’s development and other clusters of condominiums that have popped up. But she believes that more affordable housing would help keep young people from leaving Wallingford.

“We need the young people in town,” she said. “We have to take care of them so they can take care of us.”

Sullivan said outside of the Incentive Housing Zone, he doesn’t see more affordable housing in town on the horizon, and believes the town should take advantage of the opportunity. Councilors gave the Planning and Zoning Commission the go-ahead this week to continue drafting plans to send to the state and apply for the designation.

“Our sons and daughters are now grown up and they’d like to live in Wallingford,” Sullivan said. “Having more affordable housing, especially down where the train is going to be, it all makes sense.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Warning from Wallingford mayor despite budget surplus

As published in the Record Journal Tuesday January 1, 2013

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD - The town more than doubled its operating surplus for fiscal year 2011-12 over the total from the previous 12 months, closing out the year $1,682,000 under budget, according to an annual audit.

Still, even though the town closed out in the black, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. warned that looming state and federal budget cuts could be a problem.

“Given what’s going on at the state level and the federal level … there could be a reduction of services,” Dickinson said. “At what point in there is the town going to need to pick up those previously funded services?”

Dickinson and Comptroller James Bowes presented the results of an audit done by Blum Shapiro of West Hartford during an annual end-of-theyear press conference Friday. A handful of town councilors were there, as well as some town staff.

Wallingford’s total operating budget for 2011-12 was $141,448,848.

Bowes said the surplus was primarily the result of two major factors: a mild winter that required little in the way of supplies, equipment and overtime costs for snow and ice removal; and a municipal revenue sharing grant the town received from the state to plug some of the financial holes created after the state ended a longtime program that gave cities and towns money in exchange for not taxing machinery. The town had approved its budget for the year before the new grant was included in the state’s budget, and had planned to lose the $800,000 it ended up receiving.

Bowes said he was unsure whether the state would be providing a similar grant in the coming year.

In other increases, the town’s tax collection rate was a bit higher than budgeted, Bowes said.

But there were losses, as the town’s interest revenue continues to decline. It earned about $100,000 less in interest in fiscal year 2011-12 than in previous years, Bowes said.

Bowes said the fiscal picture was in doubt at times during the year as the town waited to hear if it would receive reimbursement money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Hurricane Irene and winter storm Alfred.

“If the federal government doesn’t come through with FEMA … it can swing you from a healthy year to a loss,” Bowes said.

The town eventually received the reimbursement it sought.

The surplus, $1,682,000, will go into the town’s general fund.

“The credit ratings agencies like to see that you have funds in reserve, that you are not on the brink of borrowing money whenever anything occurs,” Dickinson said.

But Democratic Town Councilor Jason Zandri said he’d like to see the roughly $1.7 million surplus go toward improving parking in the downtown area.

“This is like found money,” he said. “Rather than putting it into the general fund — where it almost never comes out — why not utilize it?”

Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein said he supported putting the money away to prepare for possible cuts in state aid.

“We have to protect our taxpayers,”he said. Democratic Councilor John Sullivan said he was pleased to see a surplus in tough economic times. “Most people should be happy,” he said.

And as for putting the money away or spending it, Sullivan said money should be saved because there is “too much uncertainty” at the state and federal level.

“We don’t know if what was funded this year will be funded next year,” he said.

The audit Friday also covered the town’s utilities. The Electric Division saw a net loss in the 2011-12 fiscal year of $565,000, which Bowes said was anticipated and due mostly to power purchase costs. The Sewer Division also had a net loss, of $230,000, which Dickinson attributed to the values of its equipment depreciating. The Water Division had a surplus of $436,000.

Dickinson was pleased but cautious.

“We’re holding our own,” Dickinson said. “We’re able to address the needs of the community, but again this current year had a tax increase; that’s a reality that goes along with good finances.”