Budget debate gets political

NAUGATUCK — The push for a referendum on the borough’s proposed $115.2 million budget is getting political — and somewhat personal.

And much of the debate is happening on social media.

Republicans, many of whom are behind a petition drive to send the budget to a public vote, are criticizing Mayor Robert Mezzo, a Democrat, over taxes. Last week, Mezzo, upset over the flak, took to the internet to voice his concerns. On his blog (bobmezzo.com), Mezzo wrote a more than 3,000-word post titled “Naugatuck Budget Rhetoric V. Reality.” In it, he not only spells out specifics about the budget and defends spending practices, he also calls out other elected officials, mostly Republicans.

Mezzo and his supporters think the petition campaign is mostly about political grandstanding, a charge its organizers vehemently deny.

“Unfortunately, the budget petition referendum drive this year has a strong dose of politics at its core,” Mezzo wrote. “It is no coincidence that many of the leaders of the petition drive were also the strongest backers of the 2013 Republican mayoral candidate (Jim O’Sullivan).”

The Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance have approved a $115.2 budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which includes a $61.3 million school budget. The total budget will increase spending by $4.3 million and raise the mill rate 0.26 mills to 45.06 mills.

While political exchanges are not uncommon during a budget cycle, what is out of the ordinary is how it is playing out on social media, and the fact that a state representative is heavily critical of the local administration.

State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas (R-70) stated on Facebook that she’s disappointed with the local budget and the members who voted for it; she commended those who voted against it.

Mezzo and other Democrats have asked Rebimbas for more specifics about where to cut, and thus far she has only said she’s willing to sit down with local officials to discuss possible cuts. She did not want to comment for this article and said she stands behind her offer to “meet with necessary parties with the intent of finding savings in the budget.”

Her critics, however, are likening her to a Monday morning quarterback — someone who doesn’t get involved in the process and criticizes it when it’s done.

Mezzo wrote: “One would think that someone in Representative Rebimbas’ position would be willing to offer some specifics about exactly with what she is disappointed.”

He also writes that although Rebimbas wrote that she shared her notes on the budget with Board of Finance members, he cannot recall any of them being presented at budget hearings or meetings.

“I certainly do not expect Representative Rebimbas to present detailed budget proposals through social media conversations, but there was ample opportunity to propose meaningful suggestions for debate throughout the many long months of budget hearings, the hearing and the eventual adoption meeting,” Mezzo wrote.

Finally, at least one member of the Board of Education is taking issue with Rebimbas’ comments.

Jim Jordan, a Democrat and a Mezzo ally, is the chairman of the finance subcommittee for the Board of Education. He was particularly upset by a comment Rebimbas made to a constituent about how she reviewed the school board’s budget at an informal meeting and that “you’d be surprised as several other accountants I had review it were.”

When questioned as to exactly what she was referencing, she said she didn’t want to make it a news story and declined to comment.

Jordan responded angrily to that comment.

“Rep. Rebimbas has made allegations about the propriety of Board of Education operations and the appropriateness of the proposed 2014-15 school budget,” he said. “You would think as a state representative, she would immediately inform us of her findings so issues could be reviewed and if required, corrected.”

Republican Board of Education Chairman Dave Heller, a Republican, called the budget fiscally conservative and said it was as tight as possible without affecting programs and class size.

Matt Katra, a Republican and former Board of Finance member who was not reappointed by the Board of Mayor and Burgesses in September, is a driving force behind the petition and a close ally of Rebimbas. He said the petition was pulled simply so Naugatuck residents can have their voice heard on the budget.

“I am disappointed that the mayor is making this political and downplaying the concerns of Naugatuck taxpayers,” he said. “This is an effort by Naugatuck residents, business owners and concerned citizens.”

To read Mezzo’s blog about the budget, log on to bobmezzo.com. To learn more about residents who are circulating a petition to send the budget to referendum, log onto Facebook and search for the page, “Naugatuck is HOSED Again (High Over Spending Every Day).”

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