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Friday, February 1, 2013

Slim growth of tax base suggests belt tightening isn’t over yet in Wallingford

As published in the Record Journal Friday February 1, 2013

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

WALLINGFORD – With little growth in the grand list and the threat of reductions in state aid, residents may see an increase in taxes when the 2013-14 budget is adopted.

The town will collect about an additional $1 million in property taxes next year after seeing almost 1 percent growth in the grand list, but the increase in the school and general government budgets is likely to top that. School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo has requested a $2.2 million increase. Town department budgets haven’t been finalized yet.

Coupled with slow economic growth and a stagnant local tax base is the state’s budget difficulty, with major deficits projected over the next two years. State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said that if he were a municipal official, he’d be planning for a 10to 15-percent reduction in municipal aid. “Given the state of the national economy, this problem isn’t going away,” he said. “You have to take a conservative approach. Local government has to continue to reinvent itself and downsize.”

“It is probably unlikely that we are going to be able to hold cities and towns harmless,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said earlier this month.

The majority of municipal aid comes through the state Education Cost Sharing grant. The town received $22.3 million in state aid for education last year.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said he doesn’t know at this point whether municipal aid will be cut and is waiting for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to release his budget on Wednesday. Dickinson said even if aid remains the same, it will be impossible to fulfill all of the departments’ budget requests at the current tax rate.

“You have to measure reduction of services against an increase in taxes,” he said.

Dickinson said he didn’t anticipate any major requests for new personnel, but pension costs will increase and he expects departments to submit requests to fund capital expenditures including new computers for the Police Department and snow plowing equipment for Public Works.

Department heads have been instructed to give “careful scrutiny” to every item in the budget, Dickinson said.

“They need to be thoughtful in their requests,” he said. “The ability to fund everything when it’s needed is difficult.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Roxane McKay said possible cuts to state aid were part of the school board’s conversation when formulating a budget.

“It would be unrealistic not to be concerned,” McKay said.

While McKay said she understands the deficit the state faces, at the same time the state Department of Education has required districts to work toward several unfunded mandates, including the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluations.

Bridging the state budget gap will be more difficult this year because layoffs or changes in employee benefits are off the table. Malloy reached an agreement with the state employee unions two years ago that offered a four year, no-layoff clause in exchange for a two-year wage freeze.

Candelora said even if municipal aid through the Education Cost Sharing grant remains intact, municipalities may see cuts in state grants for services provided by housing authorities or senior centers.

State Rep. Mary G. Fritz, D Wallingford, said she believes cuts to municipal aid will be minimal but she doesn’t want to see any reductions in funding to cities and towns.

“When people pay state taxes, that’s their money coming home,” she said.