Officials pare budget

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NAUGATUCK — Two days after voters rejected a nearly $115.8 budget at a referendum borough officials trimmed $499,492 from the spending plan.

The Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Board of Finance reviewed the budget for several hours July 9 before approving a nearly $115.3 million budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year to send to a public hearing.

“It’s a responsible budget,” Board of Finance Chair Diane Scinto said following the meeting.

The $115.3 million proposal is an increase of about $2.3 million, or 2 percent, over the 2014-15 budget. The municipal budget proposal is nearly $53.6 million, an increase of about $1.5 million, or 2.9 percent. The Board of Education spending plan is $61.7 million, an increase of $795,651, or 1.3 percent.

Officials also increased revenues by roughly $117,000.

The proposed budget increases the mill rate by 1.31 mills from 44.27 mills to 45.58, a 2.9 percent tax increase.

The $115.8 million budget proposal that was rejected by voters July 7 would have increased the mill rate to 45.99 mills.

The bulk of the $499,492 reduction, roughly $477,000, came from suggestions from department heads.

The largest budget reduction was $318,220 in school spending, which included $200,000 from heath benefits, $90,000 in unemployment compensation, $15,000 for garbage removal and $13,220 in capital projects.

Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke explained the savings in health care and unemployment compensation stem from a contract deal that was recently finished. She added some retired teachers are moving to the state plan for health care, while other employees are switching to a health savings account plan.

The savings in garbage removal are the result of a renegotiated contract, Locke said. She said the school board is using state reimbursement from the healthy food certification to pay for the $13,220 in capital projects.

The largest reductions on the municipal side include $130,083 from insurance, $14,487 from pensions and $8,125 from the fire department. The cut in the fire department budget includes $7,125 for firefighter training.

Fire Chief Ken Hanks told the board the department initially thought it would send two firefighters for training, but only one will be attending the fire academy.

The joint boards also cut $15,541 for a part-time constituent aid in the mayor’s office. The funds were for eight months of salary.

Mayor Robert Mezzo explained the position has been vacant since last July. Mezzo, who isn’t seeking re-election, said he wanted to leave it up to the next mayor whether to fill the position.

Ultimately, the joint boards voted to cut the position.

Before the joint boards delved too deep into the budget, officials debated how to approach the budget and the message sent by voters at the referendum. In order to the lower the mill rate 1 mill, $1.5 million needs to be cut from the budget.

Finance Board member Daniel Sheridan said the referendum has to be put into context, since only roughly 17.5 percent of voters turned out to vote.

“Over 80 percent of the population didn’t give a damn or are OK with the budget,” he said.

Sheridan felt the budget sent to referendum was reasonable, and it shouldn’t be cut other than the suggestions made by department heads.

Burgess Rocky Vitale said people took to time to have their voice heard and officials can’t discount that.

Finance Board member Joseph Savarese said he’s heard people say they don’t bother to vote since a budget can only be sent to three referendums. He added the majority of the people who voted were senior citizens, who are on a fixed income.

Savarese said the public sector is five to 10 years behind the private sector. Those in the private sector, he said, are seeing lower incomes and a more difficult time finding and keeping jobs.

“Somewhere we have to find a balance,” he said. “When is the borough going to go broke? How long can you support this?”

Finance Board member Kimberly Kiernan said in the spirit of honoring the referendum, she would suggest cutting each department 1 or 2 percent. She said it’s difficult for those on the board to say what a department can do without.

Mezzo said it’s the joint boards’ job to decide where to cut and asking for cuts across the board doesn’t take into account fixed costs, costs that are beyond the borough’s control and contractual obligations.

“I think that’s us passing the buck, which is our job to figure out where those cuts come from and where those dollars go,” Mezzo said.

Sheridan said if officials want to make substantial cuts, they have to look at what he called a “scorched-earth policy,” which would include cutting services across the borough like the parks, Hop Brook Golf Course, the senior center and the Whittemore Library.

Sheridan wasn’t advocating for such cuts, but said if people feel strongly about making cuts, that’s where they need to focus.

Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi said a town can be run like a business to a point. She said the borough still needs to be able to protect property and its citizens. She said the borough is running on a skeletal staff.

The number of municipal employees has dropped from 270 in 2011 to 214 in 2015. The budget proposal also cuts two police officer positions, two firefighter positions and four positions in public works. On the school side, the proposed budget cuts the equivalent of 21.5 full-time positions.

Rossi said the borough made the decisions last year to private trash collection and the Naugatuck Visiting Nurses Association. She said privatizing the VNA wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a responsible one.

“That low-hanging fruit, folks, is gone,” she said.