As is the case with many of Connecticut’s municipal leaders, newly elected Trumbull First Selectman Vicki Tesoro is facing a moving target when it comes to budgeting.
“We had a very difficult year last year,” Tesoro, who was then on the town’s Board of Finance, said in her Town Hall office on Main Street. Thanks to the months-long struggle to get a state budget passed, “We didn’t have our final numbers out until October. Our mill rate is supposed to be set by May. We spent most of the year just guessing.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s latest budget proposal would among other things cut $97 million in municipal aid from the original 2018-19 budget passed last year. Tesoro noted that in the original budget, Trumbull was to receive about $800,000 in state aid.
Tesoro delivered her own $170 million budget proposal on Feb. 10, the day it was due. Under that budget, which must be passed first by the board of finance and then by the town council, residents would see a 1.95 percent tax increase. The budget also gives the board of education, which had sought a 4.2 percent increase for the upcoming fiscal year, a 3.1 percent increase, which Tesoro said comes to about $3.1 million.
Town expenditures have increased by 1.79 percent this year, she said, with satisfaction of monies owed to its various departments, pensions and other debt services adding up to about $1.3 million. All such contracts and expenses are accounted for in her budget, she said.
Trumbull’s total unassigned general fund balance stands at $21.1 million, which would represent 12.72 percent of its annual operating budget.
“You can reduce expenses, raise taxes, or take money out of the general fund” to keep the budget in balance, she said. “And (dipping into) the general fund is a last resort.”
Instead, Tesoro said that nearly all of Trumbull’s department heads had committed to keeping expenses as low as possible. “Most of them are very close to their numbers from last year,” she said, adding that no layoffs were in the works.
The goal, she said, is to make Trumbull as self-sufficient as it can be. It’s a tall order, but one Tesoro and Economic and Community Development Director Rina Bakalar believe can be accomplished through development.
“The number one way to become self-sustainable,” she said, “is by growing your grand list.” The grand list is the aggregate valuation of taxable property within a given town. That list declined last year, Bakalar said.
“If you don’t have projects in your pipeline, you’re not going to grow your grand list,” Bakalar said.
Tesoro pointed to Henkel, which last month unveiled its second Trumbull research and development facility in what had been a long-vacant building, as an example of what she’s hoping to accomplish. “We want to fill our vacant spaces in a smart, safe manner that’s planned out properly.”
That means striving to maintain an existing neighborhood’s character whenever possible, Bakalar said. Such was the case with an 8,500-square-foot urgent care office at 4950-5010 Main St. Following five years of controversy — developer Dr. Rahul Anand had threatened at one point to make it an affordable housing project if concessions could not be met — Bakalar said a compromise had recently been reached “that will fit in with the charm of the neighborhood.”
In addition, a 10,000-square-foot medical building’s foundation has been laid at 123 Monroe Turnpike and an Educational Playcare is being built at 111 Merritt Blvd. All of those projects are filling formerly vacant spaces and are expected to open this year, Bakalar said.
A 135,000-square-foot self-storage facility is to be built on the cul-de-sac Quarry Road, near Trumbull’s Bow Tie Marquis multiplex movie theater, with groundbreaking expected in the spring. “That will have a positive effect for businesses and residents both,” Bakalar said, “because it means cleaning up a cul-de-sac” that has been overgrown with weeds for years.
She also reported “a lot of interest” in 48 Monroe Turnpike. Once the home of United Healthcare, it has stood empty since the company exited in 2015 in favor of more up-to-date accommodations on Research Drive in Shelton. The 253,000-square-foot space represents 51 percent of all the vacant space in town, Bakalar said.
In the burgeoning Trumbull Center on White Plains Road, a long-awaited CVS is finally due to arrive later this year; Starbucks will also relocate there from farther up the same street.
As for building a new senior center — a longtime pet project of Tesoro’s predecessor Tim Herbst, who stepped down from the first selectman’s office to run for governor this year — Tesoro said it was “in limbo. The council still needs a report from the building committee, which should happen in the next month or so.” She said she wasn’t convinced that its cost and size made the project feasible.
The new first selectman said she and Bakalar were being “proactive, not reactive” when it comes to attracting and retaining business in Trumbull. “The two of us were out meeting somebody every day leading up to Christmas,” said Tesoro, who was sworn in on Dec. 4. “And that will continue.”