There was a standing-room-only crowd for Monday's Representative Town Meeting where First Selectman Michael Tetreau delivered his annual State of the Town address, touching on both the devastation wreaked by Superstorm Sandy and the local impact of the Sandy Hook School massacre, as well as measures being taken to control taxes.
"The Newtown tragedy has given us all pause and made us rethink the definition of security," Tetreau said of the December shootings that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators. "We owe our educators, our staff, our students a safe environment in which to work and learn."
Tetreau said the town needs to develop a comprehensive plan to enhance the physical security of school buildings and to provide additional training for students, staff and teachers.
The funding for such initiatives, he said, will be included in the town side of the budget for 2013-14.
"In some respects, in the months ahead, we are redefining our society, our country," Tetreau said, adding that while issues over gun safety will be decided at the state and federal levels, everyone should be involved in the debate.
As for Superstorm Sandy, which devastated sections of Fairfield's shoreline neighborhoods, Tetreau said the town has reviewed its response to the late-October storm and will look for ways to improve.
"We are still compiling the costs and documentation to make sure that we get the full FEMA cost reimbursements possible," he said, adding that officials are reviewing the flooding impact and identifying ways to minimize future flooding and other damage.
The first selectman touted energy-conservation measures throughout town buildings and other properties that have helped the town save money, including improved electric controls in Sullivan-Independence Hall that save $75,000 annually; targeted purchasing of energy that saved $500,000 last year; an energy-saving tri-generation facility at police department headquarters with an estimated savings of $50,000 per year, and the installation of over 200 LED lights along the Post Road and at the downtown and Southport train stations.
"We have made significant improvements to our financial foundations," Tetreau said, citing the removal last year of a negative outlook assigned to the town's AAA credit rating by Moody's.
He said continued focus on the key factors that drive local tax increases should help lessen the impact of those issues after this year.
"This is the beginning of getting our year-to-year tax growth under control," said Tetreau, a Democrat elected to his first full term as the town's top administrator in 2011.
Improvements for Fairfield's seniors, he said, include expanded tax relief and a new 14-passenger bus at the Senior Center.
Meanwhile, a Fairfield Arts Advisory Committee, chaired by former Selectman Sherri Steeneck and lawyer Alan Neigher, has been created to solidify and promote Fairfield's growing reputation as a dining, shopping and entertainment destination.
Tetreau lauded the first designated "Restaurant Week" in Fairfield last year and said efforts are continuing to find a tenant for the now-closed Community Theatre downtown.
But Joe Palmer, Republican majority leader on the RTM, said while the town's quality of life makes it a desirable place to live, high taxes and a high cost of living are making it less affordable.
"Unfortunately, Fairfield is so highly leverages 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," Palmer said. "This year will be no different."
With an already lean operating budget, he said, the only option to provide real tax relief is to reduce or eliminate services to accommodate increasing municipal retiree benefits and employee health-care costs.
Palmer said the RTM Republicans believe town residents would prefer that officials re-evaluate the cost of services and reduce or eliminate those "deemed as being non-essential, under-utilized and/or over-subsidized by taxpayers."
"We look forward to a productive budget season and ask that all interested residents contact us to express their opinions," Palmer said.
"I know I can do better," Tetreau, meanwhile, told the gathering. "I know together we can and will do better. Our town needs us to work together to solve the challenges ahead."
- For the complete text of the State of the Town address go here: http://bit.ly/VnlXGt
- For the text of the RTM Republican caucus' response to the address, go here: http://bit.ly/115EAVE
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