Tone at budget hearing relatively subdued

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NAUGATUCK — Borough officials scheduled their public budget hearing to be held in the Davis Auditorium at the high school, probably expecting a large and implacable crowd of residents to turn out.

Certainly, the tone and attendance at recent meetings would have justified such caution.

But only about 50 taxpayers showed Monday night to voice their concerns about the overall budget, which, in its latest incarnation, represents a $713,000, or .69 percent, increase over the current year’s budget.

That increase, if approved, will necessitate a half-mill bump to the tax rate, which would amount to a $78 tax increase for the owner of an average appraised, $223,000 property.

At least as many residents made the case that the school board should make do with less in tough economic times as those who supported a bigger increase.

To date, the joint boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance have scaled back an $899,000 increase, which the Board of Education formally requested, to a third of that.

The $300,000 bump amounts to .53 percent of the school board’s current budget. By comparison, borough-side governance is looking at a .88 percent increase.

Of the four major categories of departmental government appropriations, three will get an increase under the proposed spending plan: General administration at 6.5 percent, public safety at 1.8 percent, and health and welfare at .41 percent.

Public Works and Recreation will face a 1.6 percent overall decrease.

Debt service payments will decrease substantially, by 36 percent, due to a refinancing plan (see story, page 1). Pension funding will increase by 16 percent, and non-departmental appropriations, which include one-time capital projects and community services, will increase by about 5 percent.

The net effect of all these changes is a .69 percent overall budget increase.

Some at the public hearing indicated a half-mill tax hike, which would account for that increase, would be unaffordable for them, while others implored the joint boards to increase their funding to the school system.

“I live in a trailer,” said William Hulbert, a resident. “I met with my financial advisor this afternoon. She says, ‘You can’t afford a tax increase.’ The trailer that got appraised for $20,000, I paid six for it. The town says $20,000, and the thing is probably not worth $1,000. … I took up a newspaper route in Terryville. This morning I lost another customer. That’s another dollar and five cents out of my pocket, plus an increase in gas at two cents per gallon this morning. Where do you think I’m going to get this extra money? I’m on a fixed income. If you have to tax us one bit, people are going to hurt. Let me tell you. Somebody’s going to lose their house. We can’t keep on paying. We’re at the end of the line here.”

He asked the joint boards to come back on Thursday, when they will set the budget, after printing, to “come back with a zero.”

On the other hand, Cindy Brodeur, who’s been an outspoken advocate for education at recent meetings, asked the boards to consider giving the school board a bigger increase.

“I’m here today to say please don’t cut any more, and if it’s any way possible, I’d like to see some added back, to make sure our students get an education,” she said.

Glenn Lungarini seconded Brodeur’s comments, adding that a good school system is a boon to the entire community, not just students and parents.

“Looking forward to the future, and yes, there are some people in town who don’t have kids in our schools, but the educational system is one of the backbones of what Naugatuck, and what most towns, are built on,” he said. “The better our educational system, the better our property values, better programs, more businesses want to come into town, better opportunities for everyone, not just those with kids in school.”

Board of Education member Dave Heller said he understood the public’s frustration with the school board, but said, “We’ve worked very hard to make the necessary cuts to save as much money as we can. … [Controller and acting Board of Ed. Business Manager Wayne] McAllister has done an outstanding job finding every possible savings we can find. In terms of fiscal mismanagement, I don’t think people can wave that flag this year.”

But wave it, some did. Among them was David Cronin of Naugatuck Taxpayers in Revolt, a critic of the school board, who called for schoolteachers, administrators and the superintendent to take a zero-percent wage increase.

Sally Brouillet echoed Cronin’s plea, adding, “We must freeze salaries right now. This is no time for anyone to be getting raises. Certainly no one in the private sector is getting raises. I wouldn’t dream of asking my boss for a raise right now, because I know he just doesn’t have the money to do it right now. Naugatuck must show the same restraint over its budget, completely examining salaries, pensions and the health benefits they give, and bring them into line with the private sector.”

Cronin said if the school board functioned like a private entity, it would have cut staff a long time ago.

“If this was the private sector, this would be a done deal,” he said. “They would have just told everybody, ‘We have to cut back. We can’t afford this. I’m sorry, but you’re the low man on the pole, you’re going to have to go.’ That’s the way it is in real life.”

Brodeur, who said it’s “too late” to ask for anyone to take a pay freeze, questioned the joint board members who had spoken out against the school board’s reversal of its decision to close Salem School.

“I was very disappointed at several meetings … listening to the banter that went back and forth” regarding that reversal, she said. “The comments that bothered me were that, you know, because of public outcry, the Board of Ed. changed their mind. That’s exactly what representative government is all about.”

Contrarily, Christine Viele told borough officials they were elected to lead, not follow.

“I understand the purpose of the public hearing, as a democratic type of thing, but I think you guys are elected to weigh all of the things that the lay person doesn’t understand about how a town and an education system is run,” she said. “There’s no way I could stand up here and tell you where to take your cuts and where you shouldn’t. I don’t know the intricacies of that. But I do know our children shouldn’t suffer for bad decisions that maybe have been made in the past. Our kids shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

She worried that borough teachers would flock out of the school system and take jobs in other districts.

“Something’s gotta give, and in the meantime, our teachers are looking for other jobs,” she said. “So while we’re fooling around trying to figure out where we’re going to find this money that’s missing, we have good teachers that are going to go outside of the town, and maybe everything will be okay and the dust will settle, and we’ll try to hire those people back, but they’ll be gone.”