Here's the thing about writing a column for your local newspaper: Most people are reticent about commenting on your commentary. But, then, sometimes, just sometimes, you strike a note with readers.
Such has been the case recently with my thoughts on the municipal budget, rising taxes and excessive salaries. Turns out, some people think like I do. And thank goodness, because I was beginning to think I was way off the mark.
Now, mind you, the mail hasn't exactly stuffed my inbox, but there has been a fairly decent sampling of residents' angst over a proposed budget that was increased after it left First Selectman Michael Tetreau's desk and a tax rate that will see residents paying 4 percent more. The overall sentiment from these readers is that the budget and taxes are too high. Oh, and they also imply that town and school officials haven't a clue.
They feel that our local government -- just like our federal and state ones -- has no idea how the everyday resident survives. Can't say that I disagree with them. What is it about some decision-makers once they get into office? They seem to forget the real world, that there are large segments of society that struggle each and every day to buy food and pay rent or mortgages. At least locally, our town and school officials often are forced to meet their constituents face to face.
Now back to the mail. The No. 1 issue on the minds of those who sent emails (or called, I got a few of those too) is that town government spends too much money. They also wonder why we continue to spend when residents say "enough is enough." Building projects never fail to anger residents. The possibility of renovating and expanding Fairfield Woods Branch Library -- as has been discussed -- is on the minds of some. Why now?, they want to know. And tackling any more multimillion-dollar school building projects makes some residents' blood pressure rise.
One resident asks that the budget stays flat, that the increase is kept at a minimum or that spending is cut when it reaches the Representative Town Meeting on May 7. And any refurbishing that needs to be done on the home the family is moving into will have to be done without professional help.
And then there is the issue of employee salaries, specifically police and fire and school administrators -- all of which the readers say are too extreme. I don't agree with them on police and fire. I will reiterate that I want the best public safety departments we can have.
But as far as some of the others, one has to wonder how much longer we can afford their wages. Did you know that the public works director makes more than $150,000 a year? How about the planning director? That salary is more than $125,000. Then there's the tree warden, who makes nearly $92,000, and the teen librarian, whose yearly wage is $75,000. The aforementioned is not a criticism on these specific officeholders, but rather the salaries that these positions are fetching.
Let's take a look at the Department of Public Works, which includes administration, operations, engineering and building functions. I'm only singling out DPW because it's one of the largest non-school departments. On staff are about 104 full- and part-time workers for a total salary of $6.5 million. And that is just regular and part-time payroll and doesn't include overtime, seasonal pay, bonuses, longevity or insurance benefits. It's amazing what you can find when you take a look at the budget.
Mark my word, there will come a time when the town administration will get some common sense and consider reducing the number of salaried jobs for which taxpayers are footing the bill. Certain financial realities call for serious scrutiny. Need more proof that we are top heavy with employees? According to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, the Town of Fairfield and Fairfield public schools, combined, are the fourth largest employers, behind General Electric, Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University.
So that's the second task for the RTM. Its first job is to cut the budget and reduce the tax burden when it meets on May 7. Then, it must form a special committee to examine the number of town employees to see if we need all of them, determine where we can best consolidate services and functions and make recommendations to the first selectman.
Maybe, just maybe, we can find some savings for future years.