Halloween Village still scaring

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NAUGATUCK — It was a classic debate of practicality versus sentimentality: The joint boards of mayor and burgesses and finance huddled around a rectangular conference table in Commissioners Corner, agonizing over whether, during the tightest budget year in recent memory, the borough could continue to fund the Parks and Recreation Department’s holiday villages.

“I have woken up at 2 a.m. thinking about certain line items in this budget,” Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi said at the April 2 meeting.

Debra Hedman of Waterbury and her grandchildren enjoy the Halloween Village in 2007.
Debra Hedman of Waterbury and her grandchildren enjoy the Halloween Village in 2007.

The total cost of the Halloween, Christmas and Easter villages was $8,000—$4,000 apiece for overtime and supplies—an apparent pittance in a more than $103 million budget. In any other year, the allocation would have been approved without discussion.

But this was not any other year. The joint boards were scrutinizing every line item and already had made cuts they didn’t want to make. One such casualty was $10-per-month pension payments to 176 retired borough employees, a decision that saved $21,120.

“I don’t mean to sound cold,” then-Mayor Mike Bronko said, “but this isn’t money the borough is obligated to give—it’s out of benevolence. And this year, I’m not sure we can afford to be benevolent.”

Several officials applied the same rationale to the holiday villages, and as the budget stood entering the meeting, the displays were without a public money supply.

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Burgess Anthony Campbell’s six children are a little old for the Halloween village these days. The youngest—triplets—are 15.

“But for them growing up, it was real important,” Campbell recalls. “And my wife and I always enjoyed taking them.”

So at that spring budget meeting, when it appeared the spooky spectacle and its companions might be eliminated, it was the veteran Democrat who proposed a compromise: Give Parks and Rec. the $4,000 worth of overtime needed to staff and maintain the villages and hope donations will pay for materials.

“What I remember [about the meeting] is they were cutting every department, and I just argued the villages are important to a lot of people,” he says. “They look forward to it, and they bring people in from out of town.”

The villages also collect non-perishable food items for the Ecumenical Food Bank, without charging for admission.

Burgess Mindy Fragoso spoke up to support the villages too.

“You can’t live just a clinical life,” she says, looking back. “Those community events—car shows, Thunder in the Valley, the villages—those are what make people want to live some places and not others.”

Their case was convincing. The joint boards returned four grand to Parks and Rec.’s overtime budget, but Playground Director Kim Eyre knew the department still would need help.

“We’re planning on keeping the villages up and running,” she said upon hearing of the boards’ decision. “We’ll have to rely more on private donations …”

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When you walk through the Halloween Village this year, you may notice one item that isn’t scary at all: A plaque listing all the donors who’ve helped fund the villages and other Parks and Recreation efforts, like Christmas lights on the Green.

“We’re starting a massive fundraising drive because we don’t have enough operating funds,” Eyre says.

The plaque will recognize five levels of giving: Platinum ($500), gold ($250), silver ($100), bronze ($50) and copper ($25). The plaque itself, and other signs throughout the village, are donated by Connecticut Signcraft.

As usual, admission to the village will be free, but there will be a donation box positioned near the entrance, in addition to the one for the food bank. Borough resident Maryanne Healey has volunteered to take photographs of children with one of two characters—a witch or a mad scientist—with the $5-per-photo fee helping defray the event’s cost. Parks and Rec. has reduced the Halloween village’s hours to 5:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 23-25 and Oct. 28-30, and Eyre says there won’t be any new scenes this fall.

“But we’ve been very fortunate,” she adds. “We can reuse a lot of stuff from last year, and we have leftover lights. The Halloween village hasn’t been affected as much [by a lack of funding], but it could affect Christmas.”

Campbell is confident borough businesses and residents will step up to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“Oh yeah, I am,” he says. “I know people will always support something like that.”