A municipal legal opinion declaring that further referendums on the 2013 municipal budget and tax rate cannot take place has raised some concerns with city councilors, who said they supported the budget but disagreed with the law director’s finding.
In a memo to Mayor Daryl Finizio, Law Director Jeffrey Londregan said he based his opinion on legal precedents in 2003 and 2007. In the former year, then Law Director Thomas Londregan said a fourth challenge to the 2004 fiscal year budget would not be possible because the city had expended over 25 percent of the prior year’s approved budget. He concluded that continued challenges should not take place because “the city simply cannot shut down and suspend all services to allow a potential never ending process of petitions to send a budget to referendum.”
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The former —an increase of 7.5 percent over the 2012 tax rate of 25.31—were rejected in a Sept. 18 referendum vote. The City Council voted 5-2 last week to approve a revised , a 5.1 percent increase. Modifications included $500,000 in anticipated savings through debt refinancing, $280,000 taken from the Finance Department due to the halt on a plan to absorb school business office funds, and $250,000 from the New London Police Department to leave six vacant positions unbudgeted.
Based on Londregan’s ruling, Finizio instructed City Clerk Nathan Caron to not act upon or certify any petitions he receives related to the budget or tax rate. Several residents, including members of the organization Looking Out for Taxpayers, said they are opposed to the new budget and tax rate and plan to start a petition effort despite the order.
“Who do you think you are?”
LOT members passed out information at Monday’s council meeting proposing about $2 million in reduced expenditures. They proposed eliminating an $850,000 reserve for anticipated uncollected taxes, reducing the budget by $686,000 by cutting 20 percent from each department’s overtime account, and cutting a $500,000 reserve for the Water Street Parking Garage. The group suggested collecting $200,000 “in lieu of taxes” from the garage and increasing parking fees to collect an additional $36,000.
Bill Cornish said the group wants to ensure that tax money is being used wisely. He said he interpreted the 25 percent stipulation in the charter as a goal for a time to have a budget in place rather than a cutoff point.
“This foolishness is setting up a divisiveness in this town,” said Cornish. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as bad as it is right now.”
Dennis Downing said he thought the budget had a good chance of standing before the legal opinion was made and that he thought Londregan was acting as a “yes man to the mayor.” He accused Finzio of impeding constructive progress in municipal issues through conflicts with citizens.
“I don’t understand how you can take that right away,” said Downing. “There’s nothing in the charter that says you can have only one referendum.”
Avner Gregory blamed the budget on the city’s unions, saying the city was being “held hostage by 300 workers.” He said the city would save a significant amount of money by bringing municipal salaries down to the median income in New London.
“I ask you, what gives you the right to deny my rights?” he said. “Who do you think you are?”
Council and mayor reaction
Councilor John Maynard, who opposed the budget and tax rate passed last week, signed a referendum petition brought by opponents. He said he did so due to his opinion on the legal issue rather than his stance on the budget.
“Nobody should be told they can’t keep us in check,” said Maynard.
Other councilors also said they disagreed with Londregan’s opinion but declined to sign the petition due to their support of the budget and tax rate. Councilor Adam Sprecace said he considers that the budget makes significant reductions and includes enough detailed information for the council to show the need for a tax increase. However, he said he felt the order on the petition would spur more people to oppose it due to the accusations that it impinges on personal rights.
“I think it was unnecessary,” said Sprecace, “and had it not been said we probably would have had an approved budget in 15 days.”
Council President Michael Passero said he also disagreed with the petition decision, but said the budget has been significantly reduced and that the council is working to find new revenues and prevent overspending.
“I think what we need to do is get a budget in place and start policing it,” he said.
Finizio said he knew that his instruction to Caron would cause “severe public controversy,” but said Londregan made his decision based on past practices and upheld it after hearing the opinion of Passero, an attorney, as well. Finizio said Londregan acted independently and that the order may be nullified if a state court disagrees with the opinion.
“I do not believe that this is in any way a denial of people’s rights,” said Finizio.
Finizio said he agreed with some issues raised by LOT, including concerns related to overtime, and said the city has worked to address them by actions such as an agreement with the firefighters’ union. He said the reduced budget is increasing the inflexibility of the city’s finances and that the city must work carefully to not run a deficit due to a depleted general fund.
“This is a budget which now, in my opinion, at five percent, has pushed us below rock bottom,” he said.