Shelton Apportionment & Taxation Democrats leave meeting, canceling budget vote

SHELTON — Democrats on the Board of Apportionment and Taxation hung up their phones Friday, leaving the budget workshop and preventing Republican members from voting on the mayor’s budget plan.

With the three Democrats no longer at the remote meeting, there was no quorum, therefore no vote could be taken. Mayor Mark Lauretti took a five-minute recess after the Democrats left the meeting, and when he returned, he adjourned the meeting.

“I’ll be in touch on how to go forward,” said Lauretti as he adjourned the meeting, “but it doesn’t look like we’re getting a vote out of A&T.

“Are you happy? Are you satisfied?” Lauretti, who was in the City Hall auditorium, could be heard saying seconds before the live stream shut down.

No future A&T meetings have been set up at this point.

The Board of Apportionment and Taxation needs to approve the proposed 2020-21 budget before it can move to the Board of Alderman for a final vote.

Debates in the board over Lauretti’s proposed budget have centered around whether the information and documents presented to the A&T were complete. A&T members have asked for more information before approving the spending plan. Friday, the Democrats on the six-member board wanted more information while the Republicans said they felt they had enough information to vote.

Debate came to a halt after Michelle Laubin, a Democrat, questioned Lauretti for an hour about specific line items in his proposed $128,182,039 spending plan, a $610,565 increase from the present year’s budget which maintains the 22.42 mill rate.

Her questions included why the police department was in line for a $1 million increase to its budget when several department budget lines have been underspent by as much as 50 percent, and she wanted data on how much it cost to operate the city-run school transportation company.

Board Chair Jay Francino-Quinn, a Republican, motioned to vote on the mayor’s budget as it was presented. Laubin objected, and asked that A&T hold budget workshops with department heads and the Board of Education before any such vote is taken.

That led her to motion to table the budget vote. The three Republicans voted against the table, Democrats for, leaving Lauretti, a Republican, to break the tie to defeat Laubin’s motion.

Francino-Quinn then asked for a vote on the budget, at which point Laubin again asked members to consider tabling the chair’s motion. With only silence in response, Laubin said she and her fellow Democrats were leaving the meeting, thus eliminating the necessary quorum to vote.

“We are calling on the mayor and the chair of the Board of A&T to hold at least one budget hearing before voting on the budget, with the BOE and other relevant departments present to discuss their budget needs,” said Democrat A&T members Laubin, Joe Knapik and Steve Guralnick in a joint statement after the meeting.

“We ask that the public contact city hall to demand transparency in the budget process and accountability with their tax dollars, especially during a global pandemic,” the statement said. “We will be working with the BOE and any other department that is invested in this process to have a public conversation about budget priorities during this crisis.”

In response, Lauretti said “(Laubin) and two other Democrats walked out of the meeting while there was a motion on the floor. Best example of why A&T doesn’t work. Politics with a capital P.”

During the discussion, Laubin noted that the police department regular payroll is increasing almost $1 million over the fiscal year 2019 actual number of $4,000,746. The 2020 budget was $4,746,722, while the year-to-date expenditures are just more than $3 million.

Lauretti said any unspent money would go back into the general fund.

“There are countless other examples of line items in the police department budget where the actual amounts spent year over year are about half or less of the amount budgeted each year,” said Laubin in a list of questions sent to Finance Director Paul Hiller earlier this week.

“In times such as these when the BOE is being told to do more with less, and there is no surplus or rainy day fund to be relied upon, it is time to come through these line items and come up with cost savings that can be applied elsewhere,” added Laubin. “On the positive side, in this year’s budget, the police department seems to be the only department where this continues to be the case.”

Laubin said if the additional money is being budgeted solely to have a surplus, the city should consider creating a “rainy day” fund instead of budgeting for a “phantom” police department where money is budgeted for officers to be hired that will never be hired.

Laubin then asked that the city present a line item breakdown for the student transportation company.

"We have no idea whether the actual costs associated with running the city bus company are equal to, more than, or less than the amount listed as changing hands between the city and the BOE of $3,150,000,” said Laubin.

She said details on such costs as maintenance, fuel, insurance, background checks and drug testing for drivers should be provided in specific line items.

“How do these costs compare with the previous bus contracts entered into by the BOE? How do they compare with neighboring towns on a per capita basis? What is the cost of student transportation as a percentage of the total BOE budget?” asked Laubin.

Lauretti said that once the first year of expenses is known, then the city can better provide line item costs for the service, which is stipulated by a court to be $3.15 million, with the city incurring any overage.

As Laubin continued asking questions, Lauretti called the questioning “nonsense” and just an attempt to “browbeat” him.

“If these answers are not good enough, OK. These are the answers,” responded Lauretti.

“We owe it to the public to be transparent,” said Laubin.