Some support tax hike to fund education

NAUGATUCK — “More taxes, please.”

That was the plea of several borough residents who spoke at the Board of Education’s 2010-11 budget hearing last Thursday; they said they’d rather see the mill rate increase to cover the board’s shortfall than see their children’s education impacted by more staff reductions.

Borough controller and acting Board of Ed. Business Manager Wayne McAllister estimated the tax bill would increase by about $100 a year, on an average assessed property, to cover the $899,000 still standing between the board’s budget proposal and the zero-percent increase the borough requested of all departments. The board voted Monday to ask for a1.6 percent increase.

McAllister and Mayor Bob Mezzo stressed the $100 figure is speculative—it assumes an unlikely, neutral revenue stream and in-line spending—and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Even if the joint boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance vote to increase taxes by the estimated half mill—a none-too-certain proposition, according to Mezzo—it would cover only what remains of the board’s shortfall at this point. It has already voted to reconfigure grades, switch insurance managers and reduce staff through layoffs and early retirements, which reduced what was once a $7 million projected deficit to about $930,000. The board had voted in March to close Salem School to further cut costs, but reversed that decision Monday (see story here).

Two residents, Daniel May and Cindy Brodeur, said they’d be willing to see taxes raised by more than the estimated $100 to cover those measures’ projected savings.

“I would be in favor of a tax increase to cover the entire budget deficit, to stop the closing of Salem School and stop the reconfiguration of other schools in town,” May said, “even if I myself had to pay a disproportionate amount.”

Brodeur echoed May’s sentiments, adding, “I’m here to say not just, ‘Raise my taxes $100.’ I would like them raised $200. I want what’s needed for our kids. I’m tired of a less-than-adequate education for our children and yes, the public is willing to pay more. We’ve asked our teachers to sacrifice, we’ve asked our schools to sacrifice … we’ve taken from everywhere we can take. It’s time to take some more tax dollars.”

When asked whether a $930,000, or 1.66 percent, increase for the Board of Ed., if approved by the joint boards, would necessitate a tax increase, Mezzo said it was too early to make accurate predictions.

Though the grand list increased by about .3 percent this year, he said, the growth wouldn’t amount to a significant revenue increase. He said it was possible that cuts could be made in other departments to accommodate a Board of Ed. increase, but “there’s not a lot of places to either increase revenue or further reduce costs without fundamentally changing the types of services the borough provides.”

“If I had to guess if there will be any extra revenue to cover the shortfall, I’m going to have to say no,” he said. “But we’re a long way from finalizing the borough or Board of Ed. budget. … Revenues are not increasing, but costs to provide government services are increasing. We’re trying to provide those services more efficiently, but when you have contract obligations, pension obligations, rising utility costs and so on, and you have no control over those costs, it makes for a difficult budget season.”

Mezzo didn’t want to speculate further about a tax increase during a brief phone interview Monday, but said he didn’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s not a possibility.

Burgess Mindy Fragoso spoke out at Thursday’s meeting against any inclination toward raising taxes, on the grounds that a bigger tax burden could be devastating to those hurting most during what has proven the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“My question to you, to those of you that are willing to have taxes raised, is what about the 150 families that have lost their homes to foreclosure?” she asked. “Where are they in your plan? Where are the seniors that … don’t have the funds to eat the way they should because they’d like to stay in their own home rather than become a ward of the state? What about the people in town who require social services? Where are the people that have to go to the [Ecumenical] Food Bank twice a week to get food for their families? Where are they in your plan?”

Board of Ed. Vice Chairwoman Barbara Lewis interrupted Fragoso’s appeal to about 50 attendees and implored her to stick to Board of Ed. issues at the hearing.

The board was scheduled to present its 2010-11 budget request to the joint boards Thursday night, after printing.

Mezzo said it will become clearer in coming weeks what impact a Board of Ed. increase would have on the borough budget and residents’ tax liability.