Joint boards OK $105.5 million budget
NAUGATUCK — After hours of debate, the Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses approved a $105.5 million budget May 26.
The budget increases spending by $1.78 million or 1.71 percent over the current budget. The mill rate will increase 0.79 mills to 32.81.
Board of Finance Chair Robert Butler said pensions make up most of the increase in the budget.
“We’ve made cut after cut after cut. … I don’t see a lot of waste in here,” Butler said.
The increase is $538,000 less than the budget originally presented at a public hearing early last week. The change stems from a series of appropriations cuts and revenue increases.
An increase for employee pensions was balanced out by a decrease in firemen’s pensions, netting a cut of $152,000. The boards also approved lowering the worker’s compensation insurance account by $135,000.
In addition to cuts, a state enterprise zone grant added $225,790 to the town’s revenues and the reserve fund went up by $142,000.
The boards also reversed an earlier decision to add $200,000 back to the Board of Education budget increase. The boards approved a $57 million school budget, an increase of $545,311 or 0.97 percent over the current fiscal year.
Burgess Pat Scully said the school budget should be a wake-up call for the Board of Education that they can’t afford to pay teachers and administrators the going rate.
Board of Finance member Diane Scinto argued the borough gets what it pays for in the quality of its school staff.
The last major change to the budget came from the contingency fund. The boards voted to decrease it from $400,000 to $375,000, which is still an increase of $25,000 over the current year. Some board members said it was an easy item to decrease, but could come back to haunt them if there is an unforeseen emergency.
“I don’t like rolling the dice,” Scinto said.
Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi agreed, citing times the town had to dip into the contingency fund when a pipe collapsed and a turf war broke out between motorcycle gangs.
“Things happen that we could never even dream or imagine,” Rossi said.
On the other side, Burgess Ron San Angelo said the cut would take some burden off taxpayers without unreasonably impacting the town.
The boards also cut $25,000 from the dog fund following recent upheaval at the animal control center.
The board debated other changes to the budget, but ultimately passed most departments’ budgets as presented, some by a narrow margin.
Considerable time was devoted to debating wage increases, with San Angelo leading the crusade to demand immediate wage freezes from unions while Mayor Robert Mezzo advocated concentrating on long-term savings from health care and pensions. During the budget meeting, Mezzo repeatedly stated that he would not support quick fixes at the expense of future sustainability.
“Towns that do well focus like a laser on health care,” Mezzo said.
San Angelo said the town should demand both wage freezes and benefit reductions.
“It’s a real hard battle and it’s not easy, but now is the time to do it,” San Angelo said.
Rossi supported a one percent increase in wages instead of 1.5 percent as a bargaining chip.
“We cannot send the Mayor out on a playing field without a glove and bat. We need to be able to arm our CEO with something that will help us at the table,” Rossi said.
Scinto agreed with Mezzo that health care is the town’s biggest problem.
“This wage stuff is nothing,” she said.
San Angelo said not to discount the value of a wage freeze, which will save money over time, but Mezzo disagreed.
“The unions salivate when you tell them you want a zero (increase). … It’s not how bold you are in these negotiations. It’s how intelligent you are,” Mezzo said.
The boards debated eliminating several positions, including part-time help for the Tax Department during its busiest season, a file clerk in the Land Use Office and a position in the Town Clerk’s Office. The positions were kept in the budget for now, with the understanding that Mezzo would look into the collective bargaining consequences of eliminating them. Any time an employee is assigned more duties because another position is eliminated, the unions will usually demand increased compensation for the remaining employees, Mezzo said.
Mezzo passed around a sheet outlining what the town would save with lay-offs, not including sick time and vacation. The sheet shows the town would save about $32,000 by eliminating a clerical position and $38,000 by eliminating a position in the Department of Public Works in the first year, with savings increasing over the next three years.
The boards also debated the Town Clerk’s benefits. Town Clerk Sophie Morton, who is retiring, has accumulated 90 days of sick time, which some board members felt she shouldn’t receive as an elected, salaried employee. The sick time equates to a pay out of $25,000. San Angelo presented three years of payroll records showing Morton had used 1,723 hours of comp time. He argued that if she could take nine weeks off in the past 46 weeks, the boards should be able to eliminate another position in that office.
Rossi took exception to San Angelo’s accusations, saying it wasn’t fair to single out someone who has served 40 years in the borough. She said, as a frequent customer of the office, the level of service there is exemplary. With many borough properties in pre-foreclosure, the office can expect a lot of work in the next year, Rossi said.
Mezzo shared a legal opinion from the borough attorney saying the town was legally obligated to pay the accumulated sick time.
Although most board members agreed that they need to look into the town’s policies regarding sick time for salaried employees, they voted to pass the Town Clerk’s budget as presented.
Mezzo said he wasn’t happy with the tax increases in the budget, but that it was fair.
“It is an honest budget that has received much thought, and debate, and analysis over many months. The fact is we have made choices over many years to provide certain services and compensation, which we can’t sustain in the long term and it’s going to take time to change our course, and be more fiscally responsible over time,” Mezzo said.
The adopted budget is subject to a referendum through a petition process. Alec Wargo, chair of Naugatuck Taxpayers in Revolt, said his group was circulating a petition to do just that. They need to collect about 1,400 signatures by June 10 to force a referendum.
Wargo said the budget is simply too high.
“The political leaders of the town seem to have lost track with reality,” he said.
Wargo felt the main focus of borough leaders is ensuring public employees can continue to improve their standard of living through benefits and wage increases.
“At this point in time, the borough of Naugatuck has little to nothing to offer to voters except higher taxes and little to no benefits,” Wargo said.
With high unemployment and foreclosures, Wargo said taxpayers cannot afford an increase.
“The general citizenry of Naugatuck has big problems and the town really doesn’t care,” Wargo said.
He argued unions should renegotiate contracts or suffer substantial layoffs.
With most departments even with or below their funding for the current year’s budget, Burgess Bob Neth said the next step would be to start lay-offs and cutting services if the budget failed at a referendum.