Few sparks as Finance board contenders 'debate'
Updated 11:47 am, Friday, October 21, 2011
It was a cordial affair Thursday night as four candidates for the Fairfield Board of Finance, at an election forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, discussed issues ranging from defined contribution pension plans to whether the finance panel should have the power to change line items in the Board of Education budget.
Two of the four -- Tom Flynn, the Republican chairman of the board, and fellow Republican member Christopher DeWitt -- even remained in the Fairfield Warde High School auditorium for the subsequent forum for Board of Education candidates.
The others that took the stage were Democrats, lawyer Patrick McCabe and Elaine Gaffney, who described herself as the CFO of her own household for 25 years. "I think the town is just a larger scale version of your own household," she said. Independent Laura Incerto was a no-show.
The five candidates are vying in the Nov. 8 election for two seats on the Board of Finance.
Questioned about the pros and cons of a defined benefit plan versus a defined contribution (401-K) plan for town employees, Flynn said even if new hires were switched over to defined contribution, the town would not begin to realize savings for about seven years. "In the short-term, there would be a cost to taxpayers," he said.
McCabe said the town would be better able to budget with employee benefits modeled on a defined contribution plan.
"Defined benefit is a little riskier (for the town)," he said of the more traditional pensions. "You don't know what's going to happen with the rate of returns, how long people are going to live ..."
He admitted defined contribution is riskier for the employee. "You're obligated to better manage your own money," he said.
There was discussion among the candidates about short-term bonding for annual operating expenses. Flynn said he doesn't support it, while Gaffney said such bonding allows the town to keep more of its cash reserves.
They were also asked if they view the finance panel as an appropriations board or one that should have responsibility for formulating fiscal policy.
Gaffney said the Board of Finance, in essence, already does both.
"There's a policy function that's inherent in it," added McCabe. Flynn said the board has put in place a bonding policy, provided guidance to other town bodies, held a capital planning summit, and recently adopted a new purchasing policy designed to make acquisitions at better value.
DeWitt said board members, with their financial expertise, should definitely have some input into the town's fiscal policies.
When candidates were asked if they feel the Board of Finance should have the power to change line items in the education budget -- which it now lacks -- McCabe didn't hesitate to say no.
"The final call with how the BOE spends it budget should be with the BOE," he said. DeWitt said while it can be frustrating at times approving only the overall budget figure for the school board, he doesn't think the finance board should be picking apart the budget line by line, and making decisions, for example, about smart boards for North Stratfield School.
"If everybody's stepping on everybody's toes, then it's going to hurt the cooperative spirit," Gaffney said.
The candidates were also asked if property tax relief for senior citizens should be increased. All said yes. However, Gaffney was the only who said more needs to be done to publicize the programs currently in place since she believes some elderly eligible for relief are unaware of the programs.
"Seniors are active members of the community and it's actually less expensive to have the seniors in town. They use less services," said Flynn. He noted that raising the thresholds for senior tax relief also sends a positive message "to take care those that took care of us and helped build the town we enjoy."