Voters to decide borough budget’s fate today

NAUGATUCK — Borough voters will head to the polls today to decide whether to approve a $48.5 million municipal budget and a $57 million school budget.

The referendum will be held at Naugatuck Train Station/Historical Society on Water Street from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The total $105.5 million budget is a $1.78 million or 1.71 percent increase over last fiscal year. The municipal budget represents a $1.2 million or 2.61 percent increase over the 2010-11 budget. This school budget increased $545,000 or 0.97 percent.

“The joint boards passed a budget that the majority believed was an honest budget free from gimmicks that not only addressed the existing fiscal year but did not attempt to create a worse financial situation in future budgets,” Mayor Robert Mezzo said.

Over the last three years, the town’s budget has pretty much been held in check.

The general government budget went down in the 2009-10 budget year before going back up last year, for a net gain of less than $31,000 or 0.07 percent over the past three years. The education budget followed the same trend, dipping down then increasing for a gain of 300,000 or 0.53 percent over the last three years.

The school and town budgets for this fiscal year were forced to referendum through a petition distributed by the Naugatuck Taxpayers in Revolt. However, the voters must turn out in order for the referendum to count.

According to Borough Clerk Nancy DiMeo, 15 percent of registered voters, or 2,897 people, have to vote in order for the result to be valid.

“If they don’t get 15 percent, we’re all done. We can start paying bills and buying things and going forward with the budget that was already adopted,” DiMeo said.

That’s the strategy Board of Education Chair David Heller is taking.

“I will not be voting in the referendum,” he said. “It’s my position that people should not vote and hopefully there will be insufficient numbers.”

Heller said he hopes the education side of the budget passes.

“I think that funding is both appropriate and proper and we’re working hard to stay within the appropriation level that was provided to us by the finance board,” Heller said.

Heller declined to comment on what the board would do if the budget is defeated.

If the budget fails, the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Board of Finance will hold another public hearing before adopting a revised budget. The joint boards have tentatively set a budget review for July 20, with a public hearing tentatively scheduled for July 21.

If voters are still not satisfied with the proposed budget, they can petition for up to two more referendums.

Mezzo said the joint boards have already begun to plan for adjustments if the budget is rejected, since there has never been a referendum where the budgets were not rejected.

“We’re looking at different scenarios, which may result in reductions in force and or reductions in services,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said there are not a lot of easy cuts left to make. Some of the budgets’ biggest increases, in pension funds, health care and debt service requirements, simply can’t be touched, Mezzo said.

“Doing that would have disastrous consequences for the borough financially,” he said.

Pensions increased $427,000, debt service increased $65,000, and employees medical and hospital insurance increased $236,000 in the municipal budget since last year.

Mezzo said the borough is paying for poor decisions made many years ago. For example, the borough is paying on a bond that went to fully fund a pension system that was habitually underfunded for many years, he said.

Employee benefits negotiated by past administrations are unsustainable, and the town has lost a lot tax revenue over the course of 20 years since the bulk of Naugatuck’s major industry has left, Mezzo said.

Mezzo said the changes the boards are working on now, like changes to the pension system and health care, will help the borough budget long after he’s gone.

“I understand the frustration from residents,” Mezzo said.

He said he might have signed a petition if he hadn’t reviewed every budget item line by line to find out why each dollar is allocated.

“When you’re immersed in the detail and frustrations of having to change things slowly, you start to get a perspective on why the budget is what it is,” Mezzo said. “Unfortunately, making change in municipal government is often very slow and painstaking.”

Mezzo asked residents to take a close look at the budget and contact his office or any of the department heads for information about the budget in order to make an informed decision. He said there is also a lot of information on the town’s website at www.naugatuck-ct.gov and on his blog at www.bobmezzo.com.

Anyone who can’t make it to the polls can obtain an absentee ballot by calling Borough Clerk Nancy DiMeo at (203) 720-7009 or stopping by the Mayor’s Office to pick up an application and ballot. Ballots will be available until July 18.