Town needs to break out of its tax-and-spend cycle
Published 5:20 pm, Thursday, May 17, 2012
Fairfield is so highly leveraged with financial liabilities that we have added $10 million to the budget in each of the last two budget cycles without adding any new services. These ballooning liabilities are mainly driven by employee-related expenses, but also include our debt service.
Unfortunately, we can easily expect similar $10 million increases in the next three budget cycles, pushing our budget up to $300 million -- double the year 2000 figure.
Before this year's budget request, the opportunity was lost to implement any organizational or structural reforms to begin reversing the trend. The budget delivered to the Representative Town Meeting came with an unacceptable tax increase, with no indication of plans to change the trend next year and no understanding of possible short-term savings, if any, the five or so outstanding labor contracts could yield.
So what do we do? Do we just accept 4-percent to 5-percent tax increases each year, or do we compel the town to do something to break the cycle?
Fairfield is at a tipping point where it is simply impossible to maintain a flat year-over-year budget without a combination of structural budgetary reforms, major concessions from the unions, and/or reductions in services.
Affordability is the primary driver of prosperity in any community, and any gains we believe we have in value from our regional location and quality schools are being canceled out by the tax burden that his reached its limit. We need to break the cycle.
A few weeks ago, RTM Republicans presented what we believed to be the most fiscally responsible proposal this body was in a position to offer -- one that would start the much needed conversation that would last between now and the next budget cycle, and centered on the question: What services should this town provide and what is our willingness to fund them?
Our budget plan was simple. We asked department heads to respond to us with the impact of a 2-percent reduction. We recommended protecting specific incremental expenses that help ensure we maintain our AAA bond rating. This plan spread the sacrifice across all town departments while empowering department heads to determine where their reductions could be best applied.
It could have indeed caused a reduction and/or elimination of some services, but we believe it was the kind of urgent action needed to gain control of the budget. Concerned taxpayers and concerned parents need to be clear on the trade-offs being made when we fund or cut services and the request yielded some important information for the entire town to see.
Unfortunately, a last-minute opinion by the town attorney stated RTM did not have the authority to propose reductions at the department level, countering an opinion issued two weeks earlier that stated otherwise. We believe this was a maneuver that, quite frankly, was aimed to minimize reductions. It has caused previous RTMs to rubber-stamp irresponsible budgets year after year, putting us in the very position we're in now.
Any reasonable person in town would agree that it is the responsibility of the chief executive of the town to make these granular decisions, not members of the RTM. It's the RTM's job to determine what the taxpayers of Fairfield can afford, not how much we want to fund items like copy paper and postage.
So having the rug pulled out from under us at the last moment, and not wanting to hold the budget process up, RTM Republicans decided to take a more global approach to make a substantial impact.
This approach did not create a risk to the town. Dire language was expressed on the floor of the RTM because people seemed to be caught off guard, forcing them to react to something they didn't have a chance to fully think through.
The first selectman has plenty of options available to him, and we believe he is in the best position to choose those options, not the RTM. In fact, we fully anticipate that he will use this as an opportunity to implement cost-saving reforms in the Town Hall, perhaps using our 2-percent reduction plan as a road map.
We also hope it will indeed begin an ongoing conversation about how we can slow the growth of taxes and reduce the cost of town government so we are not looking at another 4-percent tax increase next year. We are fully committed to working with the first selectman immediately to do just that.