Budget cut leads to higher fee

NAUGATUCK — A small cut to the budget has had a large impact on some borough residents.

During deliberations for the 2014-15 budget, the Joints Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses cut a $7,000 request from the Greater Waterbury Transit District to offset the cost of providing transportation service for the elderly and disabled. The service is available in Naugatuck between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The 2013-14 budget included $5,000 for the service.

The joint boards ultimately voted to keep $700 in the budget for the service. These funds allow the borough to remain part of the Greater Waterbury Transit District, which serves Naugatuck Cheshire, Middlebury, Prospect, Thomaston, Waterbury, Watertown and Wolcott.

According to Yvonne Smith-Isaac, chairman of the Greater Waterbury Transit District, Naugatuck is the only municipality to cut funding for the service this year.

The cut means those who use the service will pay double — $6 instead of $3 — for a ride one way to a destination outside of Naugatuck. The higher prices went into effect with the start of the new fiscal year this month, even though the borough’s $115.2 million budget faces a referendum July 29.

The cost for rides within Naugatuck remains $3 due to stipulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Smith-Isaac.

Robert Gorman, a counselor and independent living advocate at Independence Northwest in Naugatuck, is concerned about what the increase will mean for those who rely on the service on a daily basis.

“Most people who have a disability or are aging are on a fixed income. To have them pay hundreds of dollars out of their pocket each month means they will have to make choices, such as do I pay for my medications or pay for dialysis,” Gorman said.

For Naugatuck resident Roberto “Bo” Diaz the service helped him move forward with his life.

Diaz was a firefighter with the Bridgeport Fire Department until 2009 when an accident he sustained two years earlier on the job caused him to become legally blind. Shortly after losing his vision Diaz began attending college at Post University in Waterbury, using the service to get to and from school.

“After leaving the fire department I had a 50 percent loss of income,” said Diaz, who still uses the transportation service occasionally. “Without that service I would effectively be in the deep-end of the pool. I would still be trying to dig out from under debt.”

Diaz currently teaches fifth-grade math and science in New Haven.

Diaz said he would like the borough to find a way to fund the service going forward to help residents who may be in the same boat he was once in.

“They are saving $7,000 from a $115 million budget. They should be able to find some way to move funds from the budget to that service,” Diaz said. “The town has the best intentions looking after citizens in a fiscal sense, but when you look at the big picture it is going to cost far more in terms of quality of life, lost income and goods and services for the people directly impacted.”

According to Smith-Isaac, the Greater Waterbury Transit District provided about 6,800 rides to Naugatuck residents in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Naugatuck resident Suzanne Westhaver, who is visually-impaired, has used the service for the past 22 years, first to get to and from college and now to get to and from her job.

“I would not have been able to graduate college and become a productive member of society without that service,” Westhaver said.

Board of Finance Chair Diane Scinto said the decision to cut the funding was not made lightly.

“We cut funding because that was one of the hard choices that the Naugatuck Finance Board and Board of Mayor and Burgesses had to make,” Scinto said.

Scinto pointed out a bus service is also available through the Human Resource Development Agency (HRD), a Naugatuck-based nonprofit organization.

HRD offers bus rides for seniors and disabled residents to and from doctor appointments and the Naugatuck Senior Center. The rides are available Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:45 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 8:45 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Mayor Robert Mezzo said officials have discussed consolidation of the numerous bus services existing in Naugatuck for which taxpayer funds are expended. This spring HRD combined services with the senior center bus service, he said.

Funds for the senior center bus were removed from the 2014-15 budget since HRD assumed all the routes. The 2014-15 municipal budget includes about $85,000 for HRD, which includes money for the bus service.

Mezzo said he couldn’t speak for all the members of the joint boards, but said the general consensus seemed to be that the combined bus service at HRD could accommodate a good portion of the scheduled rides provided by the Greater Waterbury Transit District at no cost to the rider.

“Some members of the joint boards also expressed concerns that the per ride cost for the GWTD service seemed to be quite high. Even if passengers still needed to use the GWTD at the increased fee, the free service offered through HRD could offset most if not all of the increased cost depending on the particular rider’s needs,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo encouraged any resident who either had questions or was in need of the service to contact HRD at (203) 729-5285 or the mayor’s office at (203) 720-7007.

Westhaver said residents still need the Greater Waterbury Transit District service.

“There’s a misconception that people who have medical conditions only need to go to the doctor’s office,” Westhaver said. “They need groceries. They need clothes. I work full time and I want to be able get back and forth to work.”

Westhaver said the borough’s decision not to pay the $7,000 will affect people who need the help the most.

“When you’re getting a Social Security check and have to worry about food you have to make a decision about whether you can pay your fare,” Westhaver said. “It doesn’t help people with disabilities act like productive members of society.”

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