More than 200 residents turned out for Saturday's forum on the proposed $286.7 million town budget for 2014-15, and public comment was split between those who want a lower tax increase in the next fiscal year and those who want more money spent on education.
The budget recommended by First Selectman Michael Tetreau for the new ficscal year -- which now faces review by the Boards of Selectmen and Finance -- carries a tax increase of 2.67 percent. Tetreau had shaved $800,000 off the $157 million budget adopted by the Board of Education -- a 3.32 percent rise over current spending -- saying the school board could achieve half of that reduction from lower pension contributions and reduced spending for electricity.
Several of the roughly 75 people who spoke in Roger Ludlowe Middle School's auditorium told the town's Board of Finance, which hosted the forum, that the tax increase in the fiscal year that starts July 1 should be no more than 1.5 percent because many residents are senior citizens on fixed incomes and the economy is still struggling. They said Fairfield is becoming a less attractive place to live, for both residents and prospective home buyers, because of the tax burden and that 70 percent of residents don't have children in the public schools.
But other speakers said the quality of Fairfield's school system is what led them to buy homes in town and that the Board of Education's budget had risen an average of only 1.6 percent a year in the past five years. They said the school district this year had to deal with unfunded state mandates and that home values would decline if the education system deteriorates.
Julianne Stirling of Old Post Road said her taxes had risen 400 percent in the past 20 years and that she and her husband's home is on the market because of the town's tax rate. She said the taxes on a Westport home comparable to hers would be 50 percent less.
Jim Whitcomb of Old South Road said he put his house on the market last year, but was unable to sell it. He said the "constant comment" from potential buyers was, "Fairfield's taxes are out of control."
Melanie Smith, a town resident since 1966 and real estate agent since 1980, said tax increases hurt homeowners twice -- when they pay them and then when they try to sell their house. "People are choosing to buy an equivalent property in other towns where the taxes are less," she said. "The budget cannot continue to increase in the high percentages it has been."
But Carrie Guttman of Hulls Highway said reducing money to the Board of Education would be "short-sighted and will have a significant negative impact to our property values ... We have a solid, award-winning public school system. They are buying because of that," Guttman said of people who purchase homes in Fairfield.
Robin Orriss of Nutmeg Lane said families with children in public schools help the local economy by spending money "all over town." If the school system deteriorates, Orriss said, families will leave "and the money they spend will follow them."
Bruce Monte, a former Board of Education member, said he viewed funding the public schools as an investment, not a tax, and that public education was "a sacred compact" between a town and its residents. "Honor the compact and those who have funded it in the past," he said.
David McKinnis of Sasco Hill Road said Superintendent of Schools David G. Title and the school board in recent years had done "an excellent job" of keeping school spending in check, while Steven Sheinberg of Flax Road said those years of austerity led to the loss of programs and Advanced Placement teachers. "The schools cannot be cut any further. They are in decline," Sheinberg said.
Neal Fink, president of the Fairfield PTA Council, said education today is no longer as simple as teaching "the three R's." He said students "deserve every single opportunity to succeed, even if it means we must dig a little deeper into our own pockets."
Heather Dean, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 4, said she had received more than 700 emails about the proposed budget in the past three days and that 90 percent were "pro education." "We need to support education. It's what brought me to town," Dean said.
Trudi Durrell, co-president of Holland Hill School's PTA, said she wants Tetreau's $800,000 cut to the Board of Education's adopted budget to be restored, saying an investment in education had "the highest rate of return." But Smith, the real estate agent, said, "Quality education is not determined by how much money is spent."
Virginia Sanford of Hillside Road said, "Spending more money on education does not mean a better education. Affordability is the big question. If you cannot afford it, you cannot spend it."
Brian Gates of Gay Bowers Road said, "It's a false choice between price and value. I think our schools are pretty good. They're not great and we're spending $15,000 per kid."
Ellen Jacob, a RTM member from District 9, said the debate every year over the town's proposed budget seemed to be between residents who say taxes are "breaking our backs" and parents "pleading not to cut valuable school programs." She said the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance face a challenge in striking the right balance.
But Bud Morten of Sasco Hill Road said the Board of Finance has "a simple choice between sustainable and not sustainable." "If you want to save our schools and everything we love about Fairfield, you have to first save our town," he said.
A few residents spoke in support of having a full-time director at the Fairfield Senior Center, while others favored restoring $25,000 that Tetreau cut from the town's annual contribution to Pequot Library, a privately owned library in Fairfield's Southport neighborhood that is open to the public.
Some residents said the town needs a master plan that looks five to six years into the future, and John Levinson of Harbor Road said the town should examine whether money could be saved by out-sourcing government functions, such as human resources and payroll for town and Board of Education employees.
After about two hours of public comments, Thomas Flynn, the Board of Finance's chairman, said, "It was a good dialogue, a lot of good comments ... We'll take all your comments under advisement. As you can see, there's not a clear consensus."
Looking beyond the budget, Flynn said the town should have a "strategic planning process" that determines what services residents want and the best way to provide those services.