With Mayor John Harkins casting the deciding votes to break a 5-5 deadlock along party lines, Stratford has a budget plan in place for fiscal year 2011-2012 that among other things restored Stratford library funding along with the animal control officer position that was eliminated about six weeks ago.
In all, the Republican controlled Town Council, with an assist from the mayor, passed a 2011-2012 budget totaling $188,538,591, with a corresponding mill rate of 34.15. This represents an increase of .83 mills over the current 33.32 rate, or an overall tax increase of 2.5% for Stratford’s taxpayers for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
The mayor’s tie-breaking vote was required after Republican Councilman James J. Connor, R-8, voted against his own party’s amended budget plan. The 10-member Town Council consists of six Republicans and four Democrats, and Connor’s no vote combined with the four no votes from Democrats created the 5-5 tie.
All eyes and ears then fell upon Town Attorney Tim Bishop, who told Council Chairman Thomas Malloy, R-9, that in the case of a tie vote then the mayor is called upon by the Town Charter to cast a tie-breaking vote.
At that, Mayor Harkins grabbed the microphone from his seat at the dais and affirmed that he would in fact vote to approve the Republican budget as well as for the secondary Council resolution to set the mill rate that came immediately after a 20-minute recess called after the budget vote.
Prior to Mayor Harkins’ first vote, Democratic Council member Stephanie Philips, D-2, took about 15 minutes to explain the rationale behind the Democratic budget proposal, which was put forth last week and called for the restoration of library and animal control officer funding, as well as the restoration of town employee positions, among other changes.
The bottom line of the Democratic proposal would see taxes rise just under one mill, similar in increase to the amended mayor’s budget passed Monday night. Mayor Harkins’ original budget proposal first unveiled in April called for more than $189 million in spending, with a corresponding mill rate increase of 4.99%.
For his part, dissenting Republican Councilman Connor explained after his vote that he believed that deeper cuts could have been made in the overall town budget, among them the elimination of an assistant fire chief slot. The budget as it was passed, he said, calls for cuts in positions that are of a relatively low salary, whereas the cutting of a non-union assistant fire chief’s position would bring substantial savings going forward when the high salary, plus pension and benefits are included in the overall equation.
“I just felt that more could have been done to limit the tax increase,” he added, noting that he hails from a very conservative eighth district.
Meanwhile, Mayor Harkins said that the budget deliberations were particularly tough this year in light of the struggling economy, a declining tax base and uncertainties regarding federal and state revenue streams.
“It is very difficult to balance” the funding of needed town services while trying to hold the line on tax increases, he said. Harkins said that the Council and members of his administration worked very hard in the past week to pare even further his original budget proposal.
That task was made easier by the increase in several revenue line items, including state payments in lieu of manufacturing taxes (PILOT) funds of more than $1.8 million and more than $459,000 in municipal revenue sharing funds, both of which were not factored in the mayor’s conservative original revenue estimates.
The mayor was joined by several Republicans including Paul Hoydick, R-10, Christian Barnaby, R-1, and Matthew Catalano, R-3, who called the Democratic proposal “irresponsible” and one that included “planned deficits” due to “unrealistic” expectations with respect to contractual overtime costs, specifically those in the fire department.
Democrats including David Fuller, D-6, Jason Santi, D-4, and Kimberly Meuse, D-7, all defending their plan, saying that careful department budget management across the board could result in the predicted savings as outlined in their plan.
Harkins added that there are still some uncertainties regarding the state budget that could result in additional fine-tuning of the town’s new budget plan, particularly in the revenues the town is expected to receive from the state should agreements with state labor unions not be forthcoming, as Gov. Dannel Malloy has hoped.
“We are working with some uncertainties going forward,” Mayor Harkins said, and he and members of his administration will be following the state budget situation very carefully in the coming weeks until it is resolved.