Public weighs in on budget

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Naugatuck Mayor Robert Mezzo, right, and Board of Finance Chairman Diane Scinto respond to a question from John Dibiaso during a public hearing on the budget Monday night in the auditorium of City Hill Middle School. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI
Naugatuck Mayor Robert Mezzo, right, and Board of Finance Chairman Diane Scinto respond to a question from John Dibiaso during a public hearing on the budget Monday night in the auditorium of City Hill Middle School. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — As residents voiced their opinions Monday night regarding the borough’s proposed $111.4 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, the strongest current throughout the hearing was for officials to invest more money in two areas in particular.

“We need to deal with people. We are all people, and kids need services, adults need services, and quite honestly, I find it embarrassing the message that this borough throws out there to people with needs,” said Eileen Bronko, a former burgess, as she addressed the Joint Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses regarding the proposed budget for the Youth and Family Services Department.

The proposed budget cuts the department’s funding by about $55,500. That cut stems from the borough not filling the position of youth services director.

Currently, youth services has an interim director receiving a $5,000 stipend as the borough awaits the results of a strategic planning study, explained Finance Board Chairman Diane Scinto.

The West Hartford-based consulting firm Blum & Shapiro is conducting the study. The study is evaluating the operations of borough government and one of the areas it is looking into is the social services Naugatuck provides.

Bronko said the borough should not let a consulting firm decide what to cut and urged officials to put the director position back in the budget.

Dr. Geoffrey Drawbridge, chairperson of the Naugatuck Youth and Family Services Bureau Advisory Board, said the department has a long history of serving families, has been responsive to the community and provides much needed counseling. He said the proposed budget leaves the department with a part-time secretary and the acting director as the only full-time employee. The proposal does not provide for the minimal functioning of the agency, he said.

“This will not sustain the integrity of the agency,” Drawbridge said.

Aside from youth and family services, officials were also urged to give the Whittemore Memorial Library more funding.

“We’re not just one department or one library we function with the entire town,” Youth Services Librarian Matt Yanarella said.

Yanarella said the library works with organizations, schools and churches in the borough but is limited in what it can do due to budget constraints. He said any additional funds would help.

The library receives about 80 percent of its funding from the borough but is not directly a borough department. The library requested about $660,000 for the coming fiscal year. The proposed budget includes $577,000 for the library, the same figure the library has received for the past several years.

Library Director Jocelyn Miller said the library has raised its fees for faxing, copying and printing and plans to raise its overdue charges. At a time when the library is seeing increases in usage, Miller said she still has to find $25,000 to cut while trying not to impact library or staff hours.

About a dozen people advocated for more money for the library, including several youth volunteers, emphasizing the importance of the resources it provides.

Resident Peter Jurzynski said the library is not just for one segment of the community but rather serves everyone in the borough.

“It’s kind of a shame to see the library kind of sliding,” he said.

Less than 50 people attended the hearing at City Hill Middle School. Scinto went through each section of the proposed budget highlighting changes then opening the floor for comments and questions.

Residents questioned several expenditures in the budget, such as roughly $85,000 for maintenance of the former Prospect Street School and legal fees for the Water Pollution Control Authority, which are doubling under the budget to $50,000.

The Board of Education abandoned Prospect Street School last year when it closed as a school and the borough took control of the building. Scinto said the maintenance figure is based on how much the borough has spent thus far to keep up the building.

As far the legal fees, Mayor Robert Mezzo said the increase stems in part because the borough is currently in litigation with Veolia, the company the runs the water treatment plant.

Resident Bruce Meyer raised concerns about the Hop Brook Golf Course losing money over the last two years.

“Are we going to continue subsidizing a golf course?” he questioned.

Mezzo said the golf course is not unlike any other recreational activity subsidized by the borough. He said the nine-hole course has increased fees to try to make up for the loss.

“There’s been attempts to try to make that a revenue neutral function of government,” Mezzo said.

More than half of the proposed budget is for education. The proposed school budget is $59.58 million, an increase of $1.5 million or 2.58 percent.

When the time came to discuss the school budget only Alec Wargo, head of the Taxpayers in Revolt, addressed the joint boards.

Wargo said the school board should have provided a detailed line item of its budget for the hearing and then suggested the board give money to the library and youth services from the education budget.

Overall, the $111.4 million proposal is an increase of 3.5 percent or roughly $3.8 million over the current budget. The projected mill rate is 45.26 mills, meaning residents would pay $45.26 per $1,000 of assessed value.  

The mill rate would jump significantly from the current rate of 33.55. The increase is due in large part to the revaluation the borough recently completed, which decreased the net grand list by 23 percent.

After revaluation, property values in the borough dropped 26 percent overall. Generally, homes that lost more than 25 percent of their value will see lower taxes, while homes with values that depreciated less than 25 percent will see higher taxes.

The mill rate increase will be felt especially on motor vehicle taxes and commercial properties. The value of commercial property decreased on average by just 2 percent.

Aside from having to compensate for the decrease in the grand list, the borough is also dealing with the loss of about $915,000 in state revenue.

“That, my friends, is one of the big problems that we have to realize with the budget this year,” Scinto said.

The joint boards will meet Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall for final adoption of the budget. Once the budget is adopted residents have two weeks to petition for a referendum on the budget.