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GOP on State of the Town: 'Recalibrate' spending, services

Published 3:48 pm, Tuesday, January 29, 2013
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Following is the full text of a Republican response to First Selectman Michael Tetreau's "State of the Town" address Monday to the Representative Town Meeting.

The GOP response was prepared by Joseph J. Palmer, the majority leader, and Edward J. Bateson, the deputy majority leader.

With the start of the 2013-14 budget process and the first selectman's "State of the Town" address, we think it is an appropriate time to comment on the town's financial situation.

The quality of life in Fairfield continues to make it one of the country's most desirable places to live. However, like many other towns in Connecticut, high property taxes and a high cost of living are making it less affordable. In fact, the universal message we hear from citizens about the state of affairs is that the town needs to slow the rate of spending because at the current trajectory, they will no longer be able to afford to pay their property taxes in just a few years.

Unfortunately, Fairfield is so highly leveraged with annually increasing contractual and financial obligations that it is simply impossible to balance the budget and maintain the same level of services without increasing the tax burden on citizens. This year will be no different.

Recent town meetings indicated that certain "budget drivers" for the next fiscal year will continue to force significant increases related to retiree benefits and employee health care costs. Though the numbers are preliminary, it appears that just to continue to maintain the same level of services as the previous year, the budget would need to increase by a larger amount than we have seen in over a decade. The impact on property taxes could be profound. With an already lean operating budget, the only real option town officials have to provide meaningful relief to taxpayers is to reduce and/or eliminate services citizens have come to expect and rely on.

RTM Republicans won a majority in two consecutive terms because taxpayers understood that we recognized these growing trends and we have been diligently fighting to reverse them. We often feel like we were handed the impossible job of putting the toothpaste back in to the tube. If it's not impossible; then it's too messy and ugly for anyone else to accept.

High property taxes are a serious problem for our entire community that will only intensify if the budget continues to grow at the current rates. Ask anyone in real estate and they will tell you that high property taxes are turning off prospective buyers and driving down property values. Higher-end homeowners are moving to other towns, finding a similar quality of life, the same quality schools, a better investment return and lower tax rates. This trend places more of the growing tax burden on lower-end homes whose market value was supported by their excellent cost/benefit ratio. Any increase in market value we might believe we get from our school system, amenities and natural resources are being wiped away because of high property taxes. It's a downward spiral that if not addressed with both short-term and long-term solutions will lead our community into a new era of limitation that will be unimaginable to many today.

We realize that the news of significant increases in our "budget drivers" might direct the first selectman to increase the budgets for the 2014 fiscal year by simply accommodating them into their budget request. We believe the taxpayers of Fairfield are inclined to disagree with that rationale. We believe the majority of citizens would prefer that town officials begin to evaluate the cost of its services and take tough measures to reduce and eliminate those deemed as being "non-essential," under-utilized and/or over-subsidized by taxpayers.

We also believe that taxpayers and town employees need to recalibrate short-term expectations of the level of services the town and the school system can afford based on our current economic realities. We believe it is the responsibility of town officials from each body to lead that discussion throughout the budget process to gain a consensus on this with each other and with taxpayers. Then town officials need to take action.

Beyond looking at service reductions, the RTM just passed an expanded Tax Relief for Elderly and Disabled Homeowners Program, which was an important step in maintaining affordability for citizens who perhaps are having the most difficult staying in their homes. But there is much more work to be done. We urge the first selectman to continue to recalibrate labor agreements requiring employees to contribute to their health care and other benefits at rates comparable to the public sector. We urge him to increase efforts to attract new businesses here to expand the commercial tax base and provide relief to residential taxpayers. We urge him to collaborate with the superintendent of schools and department heads to find ways to consolidate redundant functions. Lastly, we owe it to taxpayers to show we are committed to slowing the growth of spending by agreeing to multi-year plan to reduce the growth of spending to figures closer to the rate of inflation. We support and applaud similar efforts being proposed by members of the Board of Education who also share our concerns.

So we ask, on behalf of the taxpayers of Fairfield, that members of all bodies rededicate our efforts to deliver a cost effective, economically reasonable and restrained budget to the taxpayer. Rest assured that the Republican caucus is fully committed to working hard during the budget process with the first selectman, members of other bodies and members across the aisle in the RTM to see this through.

We look forward to a productive budget season and ask that all interested residents contact us to express their opinions. We thank First Selectman Tetreau and all other elected officials on various boards for their continued service to the town. We wish our colleagues across the aisle a Happy New Year and we look forward to working with them over the remainder of our term to better serve the residents of our town.

Lastly, we wanted to send a special thanks to all the town officials, emergency responders and volunteers who rose to the occasion in preparing for, coping with and recovering from Hurricane Sandy. There are countless stories that demonstrate the generous nature of our community. We also hope that those affected by Sandy are able to get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible.