fiscal woes lead to belt-tightening, sacrifices
Patrick Whittle, Register Staff December 10, 2000
SEYMOUR — Bob Keane is worried he won't be able to send his 18-year-old daughter to college next year.
Frank Stuban has cancelled his vacation.
Even in these days of a robust economy, the town's fiscal crisis means people like Keane and Stuban are facing tough times. Taxes have been hiked significantly to cover an unexpected budget deficit.
Retirees, residents on a fixed income or lower-income workers are facing tax bills they will struggle to pay.
Keane, a retired social worker, said he and others are having a difficult time making ends meet due to higher taxes.
"When the taxes went up it took away from other things we wanted to do," said Keane, an eighteen-year resident. "We thought things were going fine and then all this came to light and we're taking a second look."
Seymour's troubles have recently been dwarfed by Waterbury's financial disaster — a planned 11 mill emergency tax hike to cover a massive deficit.
That's little consolation to Seymour's residents who were riding a high less than two years ago when town leaders bragged of a budget surplus and economic expansion.
"It's upsetting because you wonder if you're going to get the help from the town when you need it — if the streets are going to be plowed, the roads are going to be fixed," resident Diane Whitney said.
What came to light one month ago was the town's $1.23 million deficit. That means a tax increase of at least 2 mills in on the way, a year after the town levied a 3.75 mill special tax. The town's current mill rate is 30.8 per $1,000 valuation.
The blue-collar town has approximately 13,876 residents and a per capita personal income of $23,563 — less than the state average of $27,078. Median household income is $48,772.
The town enjoyed a surplus of $4.5 million under former First Selectman John O'Toole in fiscal year 1998-1999. But his administration's alleged financial improprieties plunged the town $186,000 into the red in fiscal 1999-2000, with projections that this year's deficit could have been as severe as $3.5 million.
Stuban, chairman of the Economic Development Commission is, a 40-year town who has lived on social security for the past 12 years, said the new taxes have hit home with him as well.
"No vacations for me," he said. "It's not only me, there's a lot of people like this."
Whitney moved here from Shelton six years ago. Like many residents, she joyfully witnessed the town's downtown transform from empty storefronts to a refurbished retail area via state grants under O'Toole.
Two years later, downtown is still in good form, but the town's pocketbook is not.
"It looked like we were giving the town a facelift," she said.
Stuban believes the town's industrial base could be its saving grace but that the high taxes have made new businesses leery of setting up shop in Seymour's Silvermine Industrial Park.
"Any new business that we bring to Seymour is not just a piece of the pie, it's bread and butter for Seymour. They will pay the taxes, and they bring jobs for young people," he said. "But they are looking at the tax rates."
Seymour currently has 540 businesses, including 156 industrial businesses. The newest addition to the industrial park is J.V. Precision Machine Co. of Stratford, and Stuban said it was a hard fought battle to bring them to Seymour.
Stuban suggests economic opportunity lies in the town's middle school building on Pine Street, which will be abandoned by September when the school moves into its new location on Mountain Road. He said the building could be used for an industrial or agricultural museum, an endeavor Stuban believes the state would provide grant money for.
The town's politics, too, have been ruffled by the crisis. Acrimony displayed by residents to officials has become a staple of public meetings, particularly from members of a vocal town watchdog group that professes to having no faith in its municipal leaders.
First Selectman Scott Barton was elected in 1999. He said public officials are forced to deal with the crisis "under an unbelievably unfair microscope" in Seymour.
Watchdog John Leon said the group is present at every meeting to express its displeasure that after a year of tax increases that promised to put Seymour back on its feet, the town remains in the red.
"We're not disgruntled, but we're disappointed that Mr. Barton has not fulfilled his pledges," he said.
Selectwoman Lucy McConologue said the microscope Barton alludes to has taken its toll on the town's legislative body. McConologue issued a plea at a town meeting in November for the public to show patience and work with the selectmen as they search for solutions to the million-dollar dilemma.
"If any of them has a magic wand that can cause us to overcome these problems without raising taxes, I'd like to borrow it for just one day," McConologue said.