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Hines Sight / Late, undefined addition to '15 town budget lurks

Published 7:40 am, Saturday, March 8, 2014
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By Patricia A. Hines

The first words I said to myself when I saw the proposed 2014-15 municipal budget on the town's website were: "It's about time."

In more than 30 years of observing Fairfield government and politics, I don't recall the proposed budget being released so late in the season -- and in the nick of time, too. Budget hearings, jointly conducted by the Boards of Selectmen and Finance, began this week. Townwide debate will continue into May.

The delay of the budget's release, however, makes me wonder if our town decision-makers are sufficiently prepared to begin scrutinizing and debating the spending and revenue projections.

For the taxpayers' stake, let's hope the selectmen and financiers have done -- and will continue to do -- their due diligence.

So was the wait worth it?

First Selectman Michael Tetreau wrote in the opening pages of the budget book, "In putting together this budget, I have done my best to consider the many diverse needs of our community. Everyone wants a low tax increase. Everyone also wants top-quality services that provide the maximum value for their tax dollars. We have seniors that for too long have been a forgotten segment of our community. They want their concerns recognized. Parents of our schoolchildren want a priority on safe schools and a high quality education."

Who can argue with that sentiment?

He then described some specific requests, and wrote, "I know the boards will carefully review these recommendations. I am asking everyone to support these recommendations as presented. One of my objections is to balance our short-term needs with our long-term obligations. The overall goal is to keep Fairfield the best value in Fairfield County."

Who among us can differ on wanting Fairfield to be the best value?

But the real question is: At what cost? Let's take a look.

The $286.7 million proposed budget is nearly a 3 percent increase over the 2013-14 package. With that would come a 2.67 percent tax increase for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. There's always opportunity to reduce that even further.

If we think back to a year ago, when Tetreau proposed a budget that was up a whopping 6.38 percent, that 3 percent doesn't look so bad. That 6.38 percent proposal, by the way, was whittled down considerably by the time the budget was adopted by the Representative Town Meeting.

As for the school budget, the Board of Education approved a recommendation of $157 million, but Tetreau estimated that the $5.5 million increase sought by the school board can be reduced by slightly more than $800,000 through adjustments to pension and electrical costs. That would give the school district a budget for 2014-15 with a 3.3 percent increase over the current fiscal year's. That seems acceptable, even though the school package would be more than 54 percent of the overall municipal budget.

We're still a little top heavy with personnel. The school system aside, the town itself has 461.6 full-time equivalent employees, but the information technology department wants to hire a network engineer. The department requested a salary of more than $66,000, but Tetreau reduced it to slightly more than $33,402. We can eliminate it entirely. Now is not time to hire new people.

As a side note, I never noticed before that the library system has 30 full-time equivalents and about a half-dozen part-timers. Are all these positions truly needed? But I ask that cautiously because criticizing anything to do with the libraries is discouraged in this town.

The biggest budget drivers, other than the schools, are capital replacements items at 30 percent more, pension costs at nearly 20 percent more and a $500,000 increase to the senior tax-relief program.

So far, the budget proposal seems reasonable enough -- until you read Tetreau's introductory letter a little further. "The only significant new program and additional expense is enhanced school security. These recommendations and the associated funding request will be presented separately. The fire chief, police chief, school superintendent and the administration are currently preparing and will be jointly present this proposal. The costs of these security recommendations will be an addition to the budget numbers included in this book."

The mystery is a real concern. These recommendations should have been revealed as part of the 2014-15 budget proposal, not at some uncertain time. It makes me suspicious, and I fear that taxpayers are in for a big, expensive surprise.

None of these requests are final until the RTM adopts the budget in May, and there is plenty of time for residents to become educated and voice their opinions on what they want and don't want to support with their tax dollars.

The schedule of hearings can be found on the town's website, www.fairfieldct.org.

Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed @patricia_hines on Twitter.