The Board of Finance has passed a $127.9 million combined budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, but the $1.06 million in reductions made over the past two months was hardly enough to satisfy members of the Democratic Party.
Minority board members Anthony Casale Jr. and Sandra Feld expressed “serious concerns” with the process and a lack of legitimate budget cuts in a tough economy as fireworks ignited before the budget was passed to the Town Council by a 4-2 vote along party lines Wednesday night.
The disagreement in a final proposal led to heated discussion in the Council Chambers at that left members of the minority party hot under the collar.
“There were a possible $850,000 in additional cuts we were proposing and in the end, we made just $34,000 in cuts,” Casale said.
“To say there was $1 million in cuts is a fabrication,” he said. “Of the $850,000 in reductions made to the general government budget, only $171,000 would still have been included had the Southington Town Manager (Garry Brumback) presented his budget to us today.”
The war of words erupted early in the meeting after Casale and Feld criticized the process, saying they believe they were stonewalled in attempting to make cuts to both the General Government and Board of Education budgets.
Feld said a change in the way discussions were held during workshops over the past two weeks prevented them from looking at the budget as a group line-by-line and allowed department heads “to act as lobbyists” in order to prevent cuts to their budget.
The final budget passed, which included $45.42 million in General Government funding and $82.44 million for the Board of Education, represents a 2.3 percent increase in overall spending.
The change in spending would amount to a 0.63-mill increase after adjusting the current mill rate to “reset the books” following last year’s revaluation process. Revaluation saw property values decline by an average of 9 percent.
“For last 10 years, I sat at nearly every budget workshop in town,” said Feld, who along with Casale is serving her first-term as an elected official. “While I have disagreed many times and have watched members disagree, they were willing to listen to each other. This has been most unreceptive, hostile budget process I’ve been a part of.”
Republicans Joseph Labieniec, Wayne Stanforth and John Leary all stood in favor of the proposed budget and appeared surprised by the remarks made from minority members.
Leary questioned the intent of their comments, saying that if the Republican incumbents were unwilling to listen, they wouldn’t have hosted a fourth session and sat through more than 11 hours of discussions during the past two weeks.
In meeting for the workshops, discussions appeared civil but Democrats made it clear they believed more needed to be done to reduce the budget. Leary said cutting for the sake of cutting is not a good thing and may not be the best decision for the community or the taxpayers.
“I tried to run a respectful process,” Leary said. “We did ask and receive answers to a lot of questions, working through the budget books for eight weeks.”
“Is it in best interest of taxpayer to cut something out or leave something in? Every item in budget cannot be cut,” he said. “We asked for a responsible budget, and Mr. Brumback took one in to us that was already at a 2 percent increase. To take it from there and say, ‘now need to cut every line,’ is not necessarily best interest of taxpayer.”
Labieniec and Stanforth each said they were making decisions that were in the best interest of the town and its taxpayers as a whole, maintaining services and addressing long ignored needs such as technology. The approved budget would also add three full-time positions on the town side.
With the poor real estate market causing a drastic decline in the town’s grand list, however, and the council approving four percent increases in the sewer budget over the next two years following increases of 20 percent and 15 percent over each of the past four, Feld and Casale said residents are already taxed to their limits, however.
Casale noted that despite the change in property values, some homes actually remained at their existing values or even saw slight increases. For those who did not see a decline, the adjusted mill rate will serve no consolation and leaves them with bills that would reflect a near 4-mill increase, he said.
“These residents are looking at an increase that could be 13, even 15 percent. That’s a large increase to ask them to bear,” Casale said. “Do we need $1 million in new initiatives in this climate? How about half? There was no negotiating, the proposed budgets were simply rubber stamped.”
Leary said properties that saw increases were many times a result of renovations and property improvements. He said the purpose of a revaluation is to balance the books and reset values to help maintain a balanced net across the community.
“Residents need to understand, revaluation is not an intent to raise taxes,” Leary said. “Based on the property we have on grand list, which is valued at $3.7 billion, residents will pay property tax evenly based on that.”
The proposed budgets are now passed on to the Town Council, who will host a public hearing at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at on April 23. Council members will vote on a final budget in May.