Residents criticize borough spending

Elizabeth Forlenzo of Naugatuck, chairwoman of the Naugatuck Beautification Committee, addresses borough officials in Naugatuck during a public hearing on the proposed budget. She spoke in favor of a part-time blight enforcement officer for the borough. - Christopher Massa

NAUGATUCK — A small but vocal crowd packed the Naugatuck High School auditorium Monday night to voice their opinions on the proposed borough budget.

About 50 people attended the public hearing hosted by the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance. Most expressed their displeasure about the spending increase, which at 2.2 percent puts the budget at $106 million. The proposed budget would raise property taxes about 3.7 percent and bump the mill rate up 1.18 mills, to 33.20 mills.

Several residents said there was no reason for any increases in the budget, no matter what they were for.

Alec Wargo, director Naugatuck Taxpayers in Revolt, had a long list of items he felt should be cut from the budget, including computer upgrades for public safety, a federally-mandated communications upgrade for police, sewer repairs (he’s not on the town sewer system), plow trucks to replace three that broke down this winter and $35,000 for a strategic planning study.

Wargo said the world would not come to an end if those items weren’t in the budget.

“You’re giving us nothing except robbing us blind,” Wargo said to applause from the audience.

Most of the items he wanted to cut were one-time expenses included in the reserve fund. He also argued that the reserve fund should be reduced to five percent of the budget.

According to Mayor Robert Mezzo lowering the fund balance would not impact taxes because any items cut from that fund would also be cut from the fund balance on the revenue side, making those one-time expenses tax-neutral.

Mezzo added the borough recently was able to lower its debt interest because its bond rating went up as a result of a healthy reserve fund balance.

Resident Michael Livingston said that seeing increases in public sector wages and benefits while the private sector is suffering is hard to swallow.

“The recession has hit my family very hard,” he said.

Others echoed his sentiments, saying public benefits were lavish and they didn’t understand why contracts couldn’t be renegotiated.

A hot topic of conversation at the hearing was the Hop Brook Golf Course, which ran $60,000 in the red this year.

Some residents said the golf course was an exclusive club, open only to some, and not a resource for much of the town. Resident David Cronin said the golf course should be privatized.

Golfer and resident Richard Palizay said he hasn’t been to a public school in 70 years, but that doesn’t mean the board shouldn’t fund the schools.

Paul Grant, the course’s manager, said the course was working on raising its fees, which are currently $14 per game.

Some residents picked on small items in the budget, such as grass mowing at the Industrial Park and $500 for maintenance at Jesse Camille’s Restaurant, a town-owned property.

Resident Eileen Bronko opposed funding the strategic planning study which would look at how Naugatuck’s government is run and suggest improvements to make it more efficient.

She said the Mayor should be responsible for such planning.

Burgess Michael Bronko agreed saying the study would be a waste of money and the suggestions may never be implemented.

Mezzo argued the town has exhausted the low-hanging fruit to save money and needs outside help to change the way things are done. Otherwise, he said, the town would be stuck with the same problems twenty years from now.

“This is the most fundamentally important thing in this entire budget,” Mezzo said.

Although much of the talk during the hearing centered on cuts, a few people asked to put items back in the budget.

Several members of the Blight Committee spoke up to advocate for reinstating money for a blight officer, a $20,000 part-time position to enforce a blight ordinance passed last November.

Blight Committee Co-chair Elizabeth Florenzo said the Zoning Enforcement Officer doesn’t have the will or time to enforce the ordinance.

Co-chair Linda Ramos said blight is the first impression that visitors and businesses get of the town.

“We need a blight officer to enforce this now,” she said.

Sally Brouillet of 205 Osborne Road said the small amount of money invested in the position would be returned many times over when new businesses invest in the town.

Others said the position is a waste of money the town cannot afford.

“I’d like to see our town take a more conservative approach to blight,” Emidio Cerasale said.

She also asked the board to fund the Northwest Regional Mental Health Board, which Naugatuck stopped funding last year. She said she was advocating for people with mental health and substance abuse issues who wouldn’t advocate for themselves.

Resident Cindy Brodeur asked the board not to cut the education budget any further. She said her daughter only has a half year of science at a time when science is highly valued.

“This town is going backwards,” she said.

Wargo weighed in on the school budget, saying the Board of Education doesn’t deserve one penny beyond what they got last year. He called the school board completely incompetent and said they have no clue what they’re doing and hiring more teachers won’t fix anything, he said.

Bronko took offense to Wargo’s statements, saying that Naugatuck used to be one of the least-funded schools in Connecticut and still ranked in the middle for performance. Now, the town is playing catch-up to properly fund the schools, he said.

“(The budget) has gone up a lot because we were so far behind,” newly-appointed Board of Education Chair David Heller said.

Heller said, with the help of Borough Controller and Board of Education Business Manager Wayne McAllister, the board is spending its money wisely.

The Board of Mayor and Burgesses was scheduled to hold a special meeting Thursday, after press time, to approve the budget and set the mill rate.

Once the budget is approved, voters may petition for up to three referendums to vote on the budget and get the changes they want. At least 8 percent of registered voters must sign the petition for a referendum to take place.