Budget Hearing Produces Tense Comments
Provided the proposed 2015-16 budget is approved by the Annual Town Meeting on May 18 (after the Woodbridge Town News press time) some Woodbridge residents will see a tax increase, others a tax decrease starting July 1. The reason for that is the most recent revaluation, which resulted in an overall Grand List decrease of $64 million, or 5.3%. To keep the municipal income at an even keel, the mill rate will be adjusted accordingly, explained the town’s Finance Director Anthony Genovese. However, not all property values declined at an even rate, he said, which leads to the situation where some property value decreases exceeded the mill rate increase of 7.43%. Those are the property owners who will see their taxes decline.
The total budget increases from the current $45.5 million to $46.1 million, with about 60% of that going to the schools. The Beecher Road School budget increases by $448,645 (3.44%) and the Amity budget by $260,850 (1.97%). The expenditure increase for the town is 1.42%. As proposed, the mill rate will jump from the current 34.97 to 37.66, a 7.69% increase. According to the Woodbridge Charter, the Board of Finance gets to vote for or against the budget when the Annual Town Meeting lacks a quorum, which it typically does. At the April 27 hearing, just before the municipal election, political discussion infused the hearing, and led to some heated exchanges and fine oratory fanfare, but did not affect the proposed spending plan.
What does the budget pay for? New in the 2016 budget are debt payments of principal and interest for the newly opened Sheehy Public Works garage ($302,000); also about $70,000 for maintenance of the new facility; funds for maintenance at the Animal Control facility ($10,000); funds for a part-time town planner ($10,000) and funds for a new position in the Parks Department.
The capital plan funds the usual road reconstruction ($700,000), also technology at Beecher Road School ($70,000), the Public Works truck reserve fund ($30,000) and police vehicle replacements ($62,000). For Recreation, it includes replacement of gymnastics equipment ($5,500) and shuffleboard courts ($5,500).
State of the Town: First Selectman Ellen Scalettar in her remarks thanked Town Hall employees as well as government volunteers for their efforts at maintaining services while controlling taxes. “All actions have been unanimous,” she emphasized.
Regarding the Country Club of Woodbridge, a facility owned by the town, she said the risk of financial loss had shifted to the golf operator since the town renegotiated the contract, but the clubhouse and infrastructure still requires improvements at a formidable cost to taxpayers. As far as the Toll Brothers proposal for development is concerned, Scalettar assured townspeople that no town official had endorsed the proposal, but the townspeople need to consider it. Some of the alternatives suggested for the site, such as a convention center, a small hotel, and such, sound wonderful, “if the town can manage its finances,” she said.
Scalettar talked about her efforts to support the local business community, encourage networking with a new Business After Hours event and working in conjunction with New Haven, a cooperation that paid off when the towns pressured the State Department of Transportation to make Exit 59 improvements a higher priority. “We should see improvements in the next three years,” she said.
Scalettar also mentioned multiple energy initiatives under way in the town, including installation of a microgrid in the center, fueled by a fuel cell at Amity High School; also a proposed solar farm on the old landfill; and the energy challenge with incentives for homeowners.
She mentioned new initiatives designed to build a sense of community, such as the farmers market, the upcoming One Book One Town read, and the Taste of Woodbridge event.
Chairman speaks out: Board of Finance Chairman Matt Giglietti took to the microphone to respond to claims and criticism that had come to his attention through letters to the editor and other campaign-related materials. “Too many baseless, negative claims,” had been made regarding the town’s financial operations, he said. In particular he objected to the characterization as “yes men” for those who serve on boards and commissions and who chose to work with the administration.
Giglietti said he started on the Board of Finance in 1989 under the late Russ Stoddard, and proceeded to introduce the current members of the board, who all have considerable business acumen and chose to serve their town. Giglietti said the reason the finance board is appointed rather than elected was that former First Selectman Russ Stoddard “couldn’t get people to run, that’s the reason it’s appointed.”
Giglietti also talked about the $400,000 the town carries forward from fund balance into the operating budget to offset the tax burden, calling it “normal practice”. He compared Woodbridge’s fund balance of nearly 10% of the budget to that of other towns, some of them similar in size, and found it to be “more than appropriate,” a fact that is reflected in the Aaa bond rating the town enjoys. He said town officials are watching its debt level and “will not add more debt until we retire debt”.
Giglietti also responded to the criticism that Woodbridge per capita tax levels are said to be the highest in New Haven County. Per capita taxes include not just property taxes, but also the state income tax, he said, and many residents have high incomes. “That is the reason for the per capita tax,” he said.
Some in the audience tried to interrupt Giglietti in his impassioned speech, saying he was off subject. Cheryl Lipson, an advocate for the Animal Control facility, took to the microphone after he had finished. “Matt, I respect everything you’ve done for the town,” she said. “But you used it (the hearing) to attack people. It was inappropriate. This was not the place for it.”
‘We are here to serve’: The tension that had built up in the room was diffused by a 25-minute speech by long-time resident Michael Luther in which he implored people to remember what we are here for. “We are here to serve others,” he reminded the audience in a light-hearted speech with plenty of historical and contemporary references (“No, Chicken Little, the sky is NOT falling”). Maybe it was the white hair that people respected, or the humor, or the historical knowledge of all things Woodbridge and beyond, but it was a remarkable speech that had a calming effect.
“Those seated up there are experienced citizens and staff,” Luther said of the finance board members and selectmen seated at the head table. He went on to mention the Town Clerk and her work preserving land records, and the tax assessor working on the revaluation herself rather than outsourcing it. “What a wonderful Town Hall we have and wonderful volunteers,” he said. He encouraged civil discourse among “We The People,” and in paraphrasing John Stewart, he reminded the audience that there is light at the end of the tunnel. “Only for us, it’s Hamden,” he said.
A recording of the hearing and its oratory is available on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eM-aNh3hgDg.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent