BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — When Merrilyn Vanghele opened her property tax bill a few days ago, she wept.
In a single year, the bill on her modest Black Rock home had risen 38 percent to a whopping $15,786.
“I cried. I actually cried,” she said. “I thought they made a mistake and it was someone else’s bill. How am I going to pay that? I’m being put out of my home and I didn’t know what I did wrong.”
Vanghele joined about 300 other angry, frustrated taxpayers who stormed Tuesday’s Bridgeport City Council meeting, demanding answers and solutions to the city’s current fiscal “crisis.”
Though only a handful were allowed to speak on the record at the meeting, Mayor Joe Ganim and some council members stayed for an impromptu public forum, in which homeowner after homeowner — including Ganim’s ex-sister-in-law — lambasted the city administration for incompetence, mismanagement and outright lies.
“If you don’t stop what you’re doing…God don’t like ugly,” said Elder Gloria Brown, who said she’s expected to pay $12,000 on her East End property. “Lower that mill rate. Bring it down.”
The raucous forum included thunderous booing, foot-stomping, yelled taunts and chants of “Joe’s got to go!” For nearly two hours, residents took to the microphone, asking how city leaders could approve a 29 percent mill rate hike for fiscal year 2017.
State Sen. Marilyn Moore said she knows Ganim said he inherited a $20 million budget deficit. But she pleaded with the council to look at other options for spending reductions.
“Look at it again,” she said. “You cannot do it on the backs of the people of this city. Really think twice about what you’ve done.”
Alison Boteler asked how her 84-year-old mother, Charla, can be expected to pay $24,000 in property taxes with a fixed income of $33,000.
“There’s no relief for us,” said Boteler, who is her mother’s sole caregiver. “What are we supposed to do? It’s like a form of elder abuse, but it’s done with taxes.”
Some called for the mayor and council members to step down or consider refusing their salaries and stipends. Others said they would remember their tax bills on Election Day.
Ganim did have one supporter during the evening — Maria Pires, a Bridgeport resident and city employee. She reminded the crowd Ganim has been in office only since December.
“He can only do so much,” she said. “Give him time.”
Her comments were met with loud booing.
The crowd cheered, however, when residents called for a financial control board to handle the city’s money matters or asked the mayor to consider taking on some in the crowd, including former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, as pro bono advisors.
“Please don’t shut this intelligence down or throw it by the side of the guardrail,” said 10-year resident Beverly Balaz.
Asked about the backlash Wednesday, Ganim said the revaluation caused some people to be in a “bad situation,” but he also said Tuesday’s revolt came “a little late in the game,” as the budget was set weeks ago.
The mayor said the budget situation has meant city layoffs, furloughs and early retirements.
“I’m fully supportive of any options out there,” he said.
Some in Tuesday’s crowd were shocked to see Corinne Vizzo, the mayor’s former sister-in-law, stride to the podium. She accused Ganim of lying to his family and city residents and, like a few others before her, questioned whether he lives in Bridgeport.
Ganim said he lives on Cartwright Street.
“We believed in you and you lied to us and that I will never forget,” Vizzo said to applause.
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