Setting a town budget is an inherently political process. This year the RTM was undermined by actions calculated to divert discussion from the real issue of overburdened taxpayers. The net result was overwhelmingly disappointing to all.
Suppositions, incomplete information, legal opinions and reversals of those opinions at the 11th hour were designed to create conflict. The resulting fire storm was fraught with warnings of ultimate chaos. Any seasoned arbitrator, or any parent for that matter, knows that hyperbole does anything but enhance credibility.
The town attorney poked the hornet's nest by presenting a legal opinion on RTM budget deliberations 20 days before the first RTM budget meeting -- then reversing it. The reversal came as a "clarification," which was requested by the first selectman and arrived by email two hours before the RTM meeting for public input. This tactic sideswiped the intent of responsible, considered debate and stalled it in a log jamb of resentment. The discussion then focused on perception or spin, not substantive, complex issues.
The library budget request exemplifies spin raging out of control. The hyperbolic sound bite after the RTM refused to restore a fraction of a percent cut by the Board of Finance was characterized as catastrophic to children and seniors, with cuts to materials and threatened weekend hours.
But trimming the library's salary requests easily could have offset that cut. Of the 31 full-time employees, 21 were budgeted for raises in excess of 8 percent. Five were slated for double-digit increases as high as 16 percent. Part-time workers' lines were lumped together without detail, including $160,000 for "professionals." An additional line item for "fees and professional services" increased by 51 percent, to $148,000. Couldn't the town librarian have found a better way to serve seniors and children by adjusting salary lines more responsibly?
Our first selectman did not make any reductions to the budget before sending it on. The heavy lifting was left to the Board of Finance when it added in funding to address the bond rating.
In the end, the RTM voted to reduce the overall budget by one half of one percent. A tsunami of political rhetoric, accusations of bullying and dramatic exits from the meeting ensued. None of this contributed anything to the process -- all of which was understandably born of frustration. No doubt we will again see the finger pointed at the RTM majority for countermanding the shoring up of reserves. I am absolutely convinced the first selectman had it within his power to make that happen without dunning taxpayers.
The reality is that our tax increases have been substantial. The trajectory is unsustainable. Our debt is too high. Our incomes are declining or stagnating as are our property values. Unemployment continues at an unacceptable level.
If we truly believe we can't squeak by with about $268.9 million rather than $270 million, and if we believe Armageddon is imminent, we have all drunk the Kool-Aid. I know Fairfielders are smarter than that.
RTM District 4