Guilford board trims budget

Published: Wednesday, April 29, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — The Board of Finance voted unanimously Monday night to reduce the town’s proposed 2009-10 budget by $1.6 million, after a $77.12 million request failed at referendum last week.

The new budget cuts $1.18 million from the Board of Education’s budget request and $429,000 from the town’s funding, Board of Finance Chairman Matthew Hoey said.

The total roughly equals the amounts of contractual salary increases for town employees for the coming fiscal year. Officials from both the school district and the Board of Selectmen have said they are in discussions with employees about concessions that could include a wage freeze.

The new budget proposal of $75.51 million includes a projected 4.44 percent increase in the tax rate. The previous proposal would have raised taxes by about 6.9 percent.

Hoey said that it will be up to the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen to determine where the cuts will come from in their budgets.

“It depends on what the unions negotiate,” he said of the possible concessions. “(It will be) either that or the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen need to come up with cuts somewhere to equal that amount.”

He added that the original budget requests were fairly “skinny.” The town’s original proposal of $27.28 million represented a zero-percent increase over the 2008-09 budget, while the school district’s budget would have risen 3.46 percent from the current level of funding.

“This was not an easy decision for the board to come to and we are cognizant of the sacrifices that need to be made in order to keep services intact,” Hoey said.

The budget failed by a vote of 2,727 to 2,262.

Board of Education Chairman William Bloss said that the board is looking at all areas of the proposed budget to meet the Board of Finance’s cuts. The school district is in ongoing discussions with the unions about contract negotiations, he said.

“We are continuing to explore every lawful and reasonable alternative,” Bloss said. “The practical difficulty that we face is that many of our (budget) items are immune from being cut by law, such as special ed, or by the fact that we need to keep buildings open, such as utilities and heat, … so the areas where cuts can be made are not limitless.”

Bloss said the board is hoping to make specific recommendations before the next budget referendum.

The town has not yet set a date for a second town meeting and referendum. The Board of Selectmen is scheduled to hold a special meeting Thursday morning to discuss the budget and set a date for a town meeting.

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Guilford to look at budget again

Published: Thursday, April 23, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — The Board of Finance has scheduled a meeting for Monday to discuss the town budget after voters rejected a $77.12 million 2009-10 proposal at referendum this week.

Officials also announced Wednesday that the town will return to using five polling locations, after all voting took place at Fire Headquarters for the past two referendums.

The Board of Finance did not make any changes to the Board of Selectmen’s and Board of Education’s recommended budgets last month before sending the proposals to town meeting and referendum. With the budget failing by a vote of 2,727 to 2,262 Tuesday, the package will return to the finance board, which will make changes before sending the budget back to voters.

The proposed budget would have increased the tax rate by nearly 7 percent, to $20.51 per $1,000 of assessed value from the current rate of $19.19 per $1,000. The town had put forward a $27.28 million budget, while the school district’s portion accounted for $49.84 million.

The $77.12 million budget represented a 2.2 percent increase overall from the 2008-09 fiscal year, which ends June 30. Last year, voters approved a $75.5 million budget with a 5.72 percent rise from the 2007-08 budget.

Voter turnout nearly doubled this year, with 31 percent of voters participating, up from 17 percent in 2008.

In a press release Wednesday, First Selectman Carl Balestracci said that voting in future referenda will take place at all five polling locations, which were last used in the November presidential election. The move is in response to the high turnout, Balestracci said in the statement.

An election at the central polling location costs between $5,000 and $6,000, while one at all of the locations costs about $11,000 total, according to the Registrar of Voters’ office.

Balestracci said Tuesday night that he has been in discussions with the town unions about concessions, possibly including a wage freeze for the coming fiscal year. Balestracci said a wage freeze would save about $450,000 for the town and $1.2 million for the Board of Education.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said the Board of Education has also had talks with the teachers’ union about concessions.

“I’m sure those conversations will continue now that there’s been this negative vote,” he said.

But Forcella added that he thinks layoffs are likely following the budget rejection. The nearly 3.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year in the school district’s proposed budget was made up of negotiated salary increases and special education tuition, Forcella said.

Selectwoman Cynthia Cartier said she hoped that the town could work with employees to avoid layoffs. She added that she had voted “with reservations” for the budget when the Board of Selectmen sent it to the Board of Finance, and she was not surprised that it failed.

“The 7 percent (projected increase in the tax rate) was just too much right now. It was too much to bear for people in our community losing their jobs,” Cartier said. “The other thing was the fact that people are concerned with 7 percent this year, what’s going to happen next year — 10, 15 percent?”

Resident Doug Newman said he voted against the budget because he felt the tax increase was “too much to ask the taxpayers to swallow in this economic climate.”

Marian Breeze, a resident who made phone calls and put up fliers in favor of passing the budget, said that she was disappointed with the results but understood voters’ concerns. She noted that voters approved $2.55 million in school improvements through bonding resolutions, while rejecting an appropriation of $810,000 for new fire and public works trucks.

Guilford says no to $77.1M budget

Published: Wednesday, April 22, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

GUILFORD — Voters rejected the town’s proposed $77.12 million budget for fiscal year 2009-10 at the annual budget referendum Tuesday.

The budget failed by a vote of 2,727 to 2,262. A bonding resolution to spend $810,000 on a new truck each for the Fire and Public Works departments also failed, with 2,603 people voting against the appropriation and 2,365 voting in favor.

But voters approved two bonding items related to school improvements. A resolution to spend $1.55 million repairing the roofs at Guilford Lakes School and Calvin Leete School passed by 3,074 to 1,923 votes, while an appropriation of $998,750 for health and safety improvements at Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School passed by a vote of 2,883 to 1,656.

Board of Finance member James O’Keefe said that the budget will now return to the board, where it would likely face cuts. There would then be another town meeting before a second referendum.

The proposed budget would have increased the tax rate by nearly 7 percent. The $27.28 million town budget represented a zero percent increase over the 2008-09 budget, while the Board of Education’s $49.84 million request included a roughly 3.5 rise from the current package.

First Selectman Carl Balestracci said that he plans to continue talks on concessions with town unions. Balestracci said that he has been discussing a wage freeze for the coming year with town employees, which not all the unions have agreed to accept.

Balestracci said a wage freeze would save $450,000 on the town side and $1.2 million in the Board of Education’s budget.

“Given the reduced revenues and the negligible increase in the grand list, this is the kind of situation that we’re faced with and we need to consider,” he said. “I think it’s important (to discuss a wage freeze) at this point because I do not want to be faced with a situation where we’re cutting staff or we’re cutting programs.”

Board of Education Chairman William Bloss said the board will likely call a special meeting to discuss the budget. He added, layoffs could be part of the discussion.

“I would say that everything is on the table,” Bloss said.

But he added that he was gratified the two bonding resolutions related to the school passed.

“We’ve tried to be as careful as we can be about the buildings and the fact is, these buildings are going to continue to be used as schools indefinitely and we just have to continue to put money into them to keep them up,” he said. “We’ve cut corners for too long,” he said.

The budget last failed at referendum in 2003, when voters rejected it twice before approving it, according to the town clerk’s office.

Lake Quonnipaug dredging estimated at $3.3M

Published: Tuesday, April 21, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

GUILFORD — Dredging the southern portion of Lake Quonnipaug and removing plants that are choking the bottom would cost more than $3 million, according to the results of a recent study.

Town Engineer James Portley told the Board of Selectmen Monday that there does not appear to be a market for selling the dredged material, which could have offset some of the cost.

Officials had hoped that the lake would provide gravel, but Portley said the material on the lake bottom is not of high enough quality to be sold.

The narrow southern 2,000 feet of the lake is getting clogged with decaying plants, Portley said. Because the lake is not very deep at that spot, plants can grow on the bottom.

The 111-acre Lake Quonnipaug is a popular recreation site in north Guilford. It has a town beach and state boat launch.

The “dry dredging” project would require building a dam and draining part of the lake. The study, done by Branford engineer Donald Ballou, put the cost at $3.3 million, Portley said.

“It would be a tremendous project to enhance the recreational use of Lake Quonnipaug, but it would be a costly project,” Portley said.

Selectmen said Monday that the project will likely be shelved, given the economy, unless the town can get funds.

“It’s a very thorough report,” First Selectman Carl Balestracci said. “It’s going to take a real plan, and hopefully some state grants if we’re ever going to do this.”

Selectman Joseph Mazza added: “And in the meantime, unfortunately, the lake keeps filling in.”

Balestracci said the town will schedule a meeting to discuss the results of the study with residents.

Portley said that the southern part of the lake may become unusable for water recreation because of the plant growth.

“At some point, the vegetation takes over and you can’t use the last 2,000 feet (of the lake),” he said.

The study has been in the works for more than two years and was financed by a $75,000 state grant after a local group, Friends of Lake Quonnipaug, asked Guilford’s state legislators for help studying the problem.

Portley said that the study included three components: the hydrology of the southern end of the lake, cost and feasibility, and a survey of the natural resources.

The project could become more economically viable in the future, officials said.

“In time, if the market ever changed (or) if there’s something that needs a large volume of (fill) material, then this could come off the shelf,” Portley said.

The town has not scheduled the public meeting on the topic, but selectmen said it will most likely be held in north Guilford.

Sun brings out the best in cherry blossom fest

Published: Monday, April 20, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — The blossoms were in full bloom, and the party was in full swing Sunday at the 36th annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Wooster Square.

The combination of warm weather and bright sunshine Saturday helped nudge along the flowers, which only a few days ago had yet to emerge. Ro Conforti, a board member of the Historic Wooster Square Association and festival chairwoman, said she was optimistic about the timing.

“I always expect the blossoms to be out — I am the ultimate optimist — so yesterday, when they popped, I said, ‘Great!’ I would say the good warm feelings of the neighbors helped them come out.”

The festival, which the Historic Wooster Square Association ran for the second year, attracted hundreds of people enjoying food, music and sunny spring weather.

Conforti said that the event offered more attractions this year, with three bands instead of the usual one, and new food vendors. The Neighborhood Music Schools Premier Jazz Ensemble, St. Luke’s Steel Drum Band and swing band Tuxedo Junction performed.

“I am so delighted this year — it’s more people, more activities, more music and more sunshine than we’ve had any year in the past,” Conforti said.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, said that she has been attending the festival every year since she was a child. Her father was one of the original organizers, and her mother “would kill me” if she missed the event now, she said.

“It’s just deep in my heart and soul and what it represents, in this community there is a wealth, a love, a sense of tradition, a sense of faith … that pervades Wooster Square,” DeLauro said. “It’s all part of what our heritage is about.”

She added: “Much like the roots of this tree, the roots of this community grow very deep.”

Wooster Square boasts 72 Yoshino cherry trees, which were planted in 1974. The community has celebrated the annual blooming with a festival every year since.

Saburo Yoshida, a first-year student at the Yale School of Management who lives in North Haven, said that it was his first year attending the festival. Yoshida brought his 9-year-old daughter, Kana, and invited friends to share platters of sushi.

The Wooster Square event was similar to, if smaller than, cherry blossom festivals he has attended in Japan, Yoshida said. Celebrating the arrival of the blossoms is a traditional spring activity in Japan.

Yoshida said he was pleasantly surprised to see that the trees had flowered.

“We came here three days ago and there were no flowers,” he said. “In Japan, this time of year, most of the flowers are blooming, so it’s pretty late here.”

He added that the festival seemed “really traditional,” with one key change: “We have alcohol (at the festivals) in Japan — I think that’s the only difference.”

Conforti, the organizer, said that the Wooster Square Association begins planning for next year’s festival as soon as the current one is over. The event will likely continue to grow, she said.

“We plan all year,” she said. “This is a celebration of spring and music and neighbors.”

Need for center’s services keeps growing

Published: Monday, April 20, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

GUILFORD — With the economy taking a toll on many people’s emotional and financial situations, staff at the Women and Family Life Center — a community mainstay since the early 1990s — said they are seeing an increase in need from many of the groups they serve.

At the same time, the center itself took a blow when the financial crisis hit many banks, which are primary supporters of the organization. But Executive Director Liza Petra said individual donors stepped up during the annual capital campaign, and the center will be able to cover its $250,000 yearly budget.

With just five part-time staff members, the Women and Family Life Center covers many bases in Guilford, from offering yoga and dance classes to educational talks and support groups for divorced people and victims of domestic violence.

Petra called the organization a “jack of all trades.”

“We have such a diverse offering of ways in which people can connect and find ways to make themselves feel better, that it actually provides an opportunity for anyone to come in and find ways to feel better in this time of stress,” she said.

To that end, the center provides resources at its headquarters in a house and barn on Fair Street, as well as referrals to other organizations in the Greater New Haven area. Petra said that most of the people who use the services are from Branford, Guilford and Madison, but the group regularly receives calls from all over the state.

Program Director Leslie Krumholz said that many people know Women and Family Life as a crisis center, but it provides many opportunities for education and counseling beyond those situations.

“I think that people who know Women and Family Life have thought that it’s only a crisis center, and that is what we do and it’s a big part of what we do, but we also do many other things,” she said.

Petra said that the center receives about 1 percent of its funding from the town of Guilford, and the rest through private donations from businesses and individuals. The group works closely with town services, including the Police Department and Youth and Family Services, especially in cases of domestic violence.

“By coming together and collaborating, we’ve been able to provide those services here,” Petra said.

The organization offers about seven ongoing support groups — including the divorce and domestic violence groups, as well as a men’s group and ones for parents of infants and toddlers — which average between six and eight participants each week, Petra said. Other groups and educational programs are regularly added based on interest from the community.

“We have the flexibility to do that, to respond to community needs pretty quickly, so if there’s an issue that seems to be a concern to a group of people and they want to get support for it or get information about it, it might be something they would consider coming to us (for),” Krumholz said.

Both women said that the center has seen an increase in use in about the past eight months, sometimes in surprising ways. While many people might not choose to attend a support group, they said, a weekly walking group that visits Guilford Land Trust trails has surpassed their expectations and currently has 30 people signed up.

“We’ve seen an increase, and we’re anticipating it continuing to grow steadily,” Petra said, noting that the growth has been in both the support groups and wellness programs. “I think that there is a sense of self-preservation and needing to take care of oneself.”

The center is now beginning its spring program schedule, including a partnership to offer author talks with RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison. For more information visit http://www.womenandfamilylifecenter.org, or call 458-6699.

Memorial fundraiser honors asthmatic daughter

Published: Saturday, April 18, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

GUILFORD — For Marlene DeSanto, her plans to honor her late daughter Tara with a day of yoga and education at the Mercy Center at Madison have been full of symbolism.

Tara, who died during an asthmatic attack two years ago, would have turned 50 Feb. 5. But because of the risk of inclement weather, DeSanto scheduled her fundraiser for April 25.

She is also hoping to have about 50 people participating in the event.

“If Tara was alive, her 50th birthday would have been quite a bash because she was exuberant, fun loving and she loved to have a full house,” DeSanto said.

DeSanto, a yoga teacher and Guilford resident, said the fundraiser will feature yoga techniques focused on breathing, since her daughter’s death was caused by a lung disease.

“Tara passed away suddenly — she had an asthmatic attack and died on the way to the hospital — so I am going to definitely emphasize the importance of breathing techniques (and) relaxation,” DeSanto said.

The day of events, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will feature two yoga sessions as well as talks from Judson Brewer, director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, and Bernie Siegel, a New Haven doctor and author who writes on the mind-body connection.

A portion of the proceeds from the event will benefit the American Lung Association. The cost for the day of activities is $85.

DeSanto said she chose to have a yoga-based event in part because of the benefits she found in yoga following her daughter’s death.

“I would like people to see what you can do if you put your mind to it,” she said. “Yoga makes you resilient. A lot of people don’t realize the power they have within them.”

DeSanto said there are still openings for the event. For more information, call 453-5360.