Money moved around in mayor’s budget
The annual budget is the most significant policy statement from the Board of Selectmen. How money is allocated tells voters what selectmen deem important. That’s policy making and transparency in government.
The newly appointed mayor, Marsha Sterling, proposed a budget that contains a selectmen’s slush fund of $500,000 that she moved from the fund balance, without explanation, so she would have flexibility to spend it without the need for voter approval. What policy this promotes remains unexplained.
For years, Sterling has sniped and squawked from the back of the selectmen’s meeting room and her bad-tempered tirades are legend. She spent hour after hour in the town hall with former Finance Director Henry Centrella and generally bugging employees like the former finance director, Robin Manuele.
Sterling sank the Winchester Land Trust grant in 2011 by bludgeoning Republicans into rejecting it and not letting the people vote on it. The result was a loss of $400,000 that the town sorely needed. Was she so determined because she felt snubbed by the Winchester Land Trust? She went so far as to create the Litchfield Hills Conservancy in 2008 to compete with it.
Described as a “frequent Fracasso advisor,” she unsuccessfully ran for selectmen in 2011. Unable to get elected, she still managed to become mayor. Earlier this year, after Lisa Smith resigned, Sterling and her advisers saw the opening. Instead of appointing experienced Republicans, the inexperienced selectmen were manipulated into appointing Sterling and electing her as mayor. An unprecedented event in Winsted history. Then, Republican selectmen Rob Vogt resigned in protest. Fully in charge of the Republican super-majority Sterling created a budget.
But it’s a flawed budget that fails to explain its intent to the public.
Last year there was a real effort to increase fund balance, which is essential to regain the town’s credit rating. On the advice of the auditors, the town adopted a fund balance policy to promote fund balance growth by requiring a $450,000 contribution annually. But, without explanation, Sterling not only did not add anything to the fund balance she moved $500,000 from the fund balance to selectman’s contingency fund, which is a slush fund that she can spend without voter approval.
Last year, slowly but surely we were paying off bills caused by the theft. This year, a 3 mill supplemental tax was imposed by the Republicans to pay past bills. This budget seeks an additional .63 percent increase.
Last year, there was real effort to begin to address the infrastructure mess. This year, Sterling designated only a few dollars for pothole patching. The money for road work you see going on now is from the budget that Republican selectmen voted against last year.
Last year, the selectmen adopted an eight-year plan for water and sewer to repay millions owed the town from improperly handled water and sewer accounts. The Water and Sewer Commission had to increase rates and they likely will have to again. This money was to replenish looted pension and other funds. In Sterling’s budget, there is no plan to repay the millions of stolen dollars from the various looted accounts. There is no explanation either.
In the end, Sterling’s insistence that her budget is clear and transparent is just a hard sell. Transparency in government means knowing how and why taxpayer dollars will be allocated. With $500,000 diverted from the fund balance into the selectmen’s contingency fund, we do not know.
Vote no to this bad budget.
Charlene LaVoie is the community lawyer in Winsted. Her office is funded by the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest.