Town Council members' revisions to the municipal side of the 2012-13 budget proposal amounted to $479,183 in cuts. The total $79 million proposal, including Board of Education spending and debt service, will now move on to the Board of Finance.
The council passed the proposal by a vote of 5-3 at a workshop Tuesday night. Chairwoman Enid Lipeles, Vice Chairwoman Debra Heim, Tony Unger, Dee Dee Martin and Ray Knapp voted yes and J.P. Sredzinski, Frank Lieto and Debra Dutches voted no.
The Board of Finance is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed spending plan at town hall tonight at 7.
Prior to the Town Council's vote, First Selectman Steve Vavrek read a statement criticizing cuts that were made.
"This past year was a year with many storms and some say disasters," he said. "This past year showed every weakness this town has. At that time when buildings leaked, trees needed to be cut, technology in our building was failing, machinery was going out of service and staff in most every department pitching in — many of them volunteering their time to do what was needed to keep the town running — my office was flooded with calls and emails to build a budget to make sure the essentials were covered in both this budget and from now on."
Vavrek expressed his opinion that the cuts will harm the town for years to come and he told council members that not only did the town not move forward, but that, "You have told our town employees they do not matter."
Several of the cuts the council made were on funds proposed for employee raises and increased hours.
Vavrek told the council, "... You have made your choices and it is you who will have to live with the consequences when more things break, buildings go un-maintained and our loyal employee base leaves for better opportunities."
During budget deliberations, several council members said they had tried to limit the tax increase as much as possible. The proposal approved Tuesday night includes almost $2.5 million more in taxes, a 3.79 percent increase.
In response to Vavrek's statement, Unger said, "He is right about the expenses that should go in, but they can't all go in at once. Having a long-term plan would have helped us. We made the best decisions we can for the priorities of the town this year."
Martin, a Democrat, is tired of hearing Republicans talk about the town's infrastructure having been neglected over the years.
"I sat here for 18 years — all with Democrats as first selectman," she said. "Year, after year, after year the Republican majority on this council cut the budgets. Now it seems to be the walking party line that things haven't been done in the past. It's because they voted against it."
Knapp, a fellow Democrat, added, "Work on the roads was proposed by Tom Buzi, but it was turned down by the Republican majority."
Town Council members expressed their thoughts on the budget proposal before passing it.
Sredzinski said the first selectman made a "noble attempt" to address building maintenance and the town's many infrastructure needs in the budget, but he added, "the tax increase is still too high."
"The problem is, we can't do it all in one or two budget cycles," Sredzinski said. "It will take years to catch up."
He noted that the municipal budget, which is the only one the Town Council can deliberate on, carried a proposed 4.43 percent tax increase when Vavrek presented it.
Sredzinski said asking residential and commercial taxpayers to pay $3 million more in taxes is "not sustainable" and "not responsible."
Any further cuts to the budget would mean cuts in services, according to Sredzinski. Nevertheless, he said he would vote against the proposal in hopes it could be pared down more. To Sredzinski, moving it on to the Board of Finance without cutting it more would be "passing the buck."
Lipeles said, "We're being as fiscally conservative as we can be."
She added that voting to close Chalk Hill, "to me, is reprehensible," and asked the first selectman to come up with a plan to keep it open.
One thing Unger said the town must do, is to replace Monroe Town Hall's leaky roof and HVAC system when the police station renovation and addition is underway — town hall and police share the same building.
Debt service, pensions and insurance are among the costs in the budget the council cannot control, Unger said, noting that any further cuts would hurt town services.
"We can't cut this budget," he said. "As conservative as I am, I will support this budget."
Martin said, "With all due respect to the office of the first selectman, the fact is there is no leadership on this budget."
She accused Vavrek of wavering on information about Chalk Hill and "walking out of an essential budget meeting the other night." On Thursday, Vavrek had left the meeting to attend the end of a business forum at the library.
However, Martin said she would support the budget.
Heim talked about the difficult economic times, but also said she would support the budget.
Dutches was among the council members who were concerned over the size of the tax increase. "I understand the level of cuts we made, but I would oppose it to see if we can take it down more."
Lieto said, "I'm not happy with how this budget process has gone. This town council worked hard and went over the budget with a fine tooth comb to make cuts." But he criticized the format of the budget, saying time was wasted getting it into an understandable format.
Vavrek said the budget had the same format as ones going back at least 15 years.
Lieto said mothballing Chalk Hill was the responsible thing to do because of the revenue shortfall and a lack of a long or short term plan.
"I would like another opportunity to review this budget to see if more can be cut to bring a more responsible number to the taxpayers," Lieto said, explaining why he would vote against it.