Budget Passes Town Council

by LonSeidman

In one of the fastest budget sessions in recent years, the Wolcott Town Council passed the 2010-2011 annual fiscal budget. By all accounts, the Council held a productive two hour workshop last week which led to tonight’s conclusion. “Everyone worked really well together. Everyone reached a common goal that no one wanted to raise taxes. All 9 Council members had input and asked questions and gave suggestions. The result is a no mill increase through everyone’s hard work,” said Council Chairman Mike Santogatta.

“No party was in it for themselves and everyone was working for the towns people. I am very proud to have been part of it,” said First District Councilman Mike Bokon of the effort. “Me too” echoed Santogatta.

The net effect of the effort was a budget with a .01 mill decrease after the Council slashed the office supply budgets of many departments to the tune of $107,935.00 at their workshop last week. Also slashed was $50,000 in medical insurance, $35,393 in Registrars of Voters wages, $10,000 in police overtime, $13,000 in library repairs and $5,000 in library book purchases. The Mayor recommended an additional $54,227 in expenditures and $70,000 in revenue recommendations to further balance the budget. His cuts affected a variety of areas concentrating on public notices, a computer, parks improvements, conference and training dues, gasoline, fuel and other utilities. “Alot of thought went into all aspects of this,” says Municipal Finance Officer Linda Bruce. The budget passed 8-1. The various cuts likely will force departments to share more resources or come up with creative ways to do without. There was no dissent during the discussion in adopting the budget Tuesday night except for the subject of collecting back taxes.

The Council set high goals on the Tax Collector’s office. Before the final numbers were calculated, Councilman Dave Valletta asked Tax Collector Lorraine McQueen’s opinion on the suggested $750,000 that the Council set for her to collect in back taxes. “That’s an unrealistic number. The town has had many foreclosures and bankruptcies,” McQueen replied, suggesting the difficulties her office will have in collecting taxes that thus far have been difficult to collect already. The back tax rate is calculated to help offset the mill rate that taxpayers will ultimately have to pay. “$600,000 would be a good number to work with” McQueen suggested, which would be a slightly higher than normally would be expected. “I don’t want to see the mill rate increase, but I also don’t want to set a rate that is uncollectable.”

Valletta agreed with her assessment and was the sole vote against setting the amount at $700,000. “I’m happy with a zero budget,” he said after the meeting. “I would have rather have voted for a more realistic budget than something we can only hope we could make.”

Second District Councilman Mike Perrone suggested that perhaps the reserve fund could be used if needed. The Chairman said he wouldn’t feel comfortable taxing people because of the back taxes.

The first part of setting the budget was to determine how much the Town wanted to spend on expenditures. The Mayor gave the Council a budget proposal in late March. The Council, which acts as the town’s Finance Board, then held hearings almost weekly with every department head and the School Board to justify their proposed expenses. Last week the Council held a joint workshop with the Board of Education to discuss the overall budget. At that meeting they determined that some $70,000 in savings would need to be found in order to keep the tax rate stable. The Council made a list of suggestions during that two hour meeting, and the Mayor came up with another $54,000 tonight. Most of those additional cuts are increments of a few hundred to $2,000 in office supplies, conference fees, fuel and electrical costs in a variety of departments. In looking over the Mayor’s list, Chairman Santogatta remarked “It looks like you touched… every department.” Mayor Dunn noted that some department heads might not be happy with the tighter budget, saying “If you’re going to make some mad, you might as well make them all mad.”

Councilmen are careful to balance the ability of departments to have enough materials and funding to carry out their mandate to taxpayers with the overall tax rate. For example, they want to make sure that there is enough funding for sand and salt for the winter, as well as enough funding for diesel fuel to run the trucks to deliver those resources during the winter. Similarly, various offices need to have enough money to run their computers and make sure staff are properly trained.

Before the Council approved the expenditures for the upcoming year, Valletta asked Municipal Finance Officer if she thought the budget was workable in light of the added cuts. “We’ll work with it. Its a tight budget, but this year was also a tight budget.” “Times are tough.” said Santogatta. “I think everyone has a tight budget,” said Third District Councilman Steven Olmstead.

In most years, the Council takes a recess in order to do calculations on the budget in a side room. In those years, only the majority leaders of both parties go to that room to calculate the possible scenarios. Tonight, Chairman Santogatta recognized that many of the Council members were much newer and opted to do the calculations in an open meeting so all could see how they arrived at the final mill rate. The budget is first set by establishing the amount of money that the town wishes to spend for both the municipal and education budgets. That number is $49,033,086.51. State and federal grants are then subtracted. An amount is then determined by the Council of how much they expect the Tax Collector can collect in back taxes. This is subtracted from the expenditure budget. Any expected court judgements in the town’s favor are then subtracted (this year there were none), and the rest is expected to be raised through property taxes. The expected collection rate for this coming year’s taxes is estimated, and the final mill rate is determined by taking 98.5% of the grand list and dividing that into the budget.

The hard work will now begin to work within the budget for all of the town’s department heads. The taxpayers certainly seem to have been heard by Town Council, Board of Education members, and the Mayor with this nearly frozen tax rate. “The (taxpayers) are going to get the level of educational and municipal services that they expect from the town with this budget.” said Santogatta. “Everyone (Council members) had a suggestion in arriving here. And most of all services – particularly for the youth and the elderly -were not hit.” said Mayor Dunn.

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