Hines Sight / 6.4% more in Fairfield taxes? Are you kidding?
For those of us still reeling from the 2012-13 tax increase, the town administration has just given beleaguered taxpayers more angst -- a proposed 6.4 percent increase in the next fiscal year.
To use a common vernacular -- OMG!
First Selectman Michael Tetreau is proposing a 5.5 percent increase in spending in the 2013-14 municipal budget. That's after he trimmed $1.1 million from the town side of the budget and $1.8 million from the education side. I guess we have to be thankful for that, at least.
He is proposing a $15 million increase in spending. Repeat, $15 million. When he unveiled the budget, he blamed, in part, prior administrations, saying, "This budget represents one more year of taking our medicine to pay for past decisions and to put us in a stronger position moving forward."
There may be some truth to that, but his $2.9 million total reduction in the original proposals from the Board of Education and town departments hardly seems like enough.
He also said, "In last year's budget, we identified a series of cost drivers. Most of these commitments are still with us and have a major impact on this year's budget. However, because we addressed these strategically, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Many of these costs will be peaking this year and then begin to trend lower for future budgets. This puts us in a better position to manage and control future tax increases."
Those are nice words but still not enough to ease worried taxpayers' minds.
While Tetreau acknowledges that "Fairfield continues to face a challenging economy," he doesn't seem to do very much to reduce the burden on taxpayers. He proposes to add two new positions in the Human Services Department and three new police officers and a sergeant in the Police Department for school security measures. He also notes that the Planning and Zoning and Building department staffing has been restructured, referring to "significant understaffing" in both. He is unspecific as to whether he is adding personnel or just shifting people around.
He does point to several areas where -- after the 2013-14 budget is approved in May -- costs may be reduced, such as through cooperation between the town and school administrations to find "economies of scale," labor contract negotiations, increased training programs to bring down worker compensation and examining other towns for "best practices" to emulate.
Tetreau also is proposing to establish a "service evaluation committee," which would see where services can be reduced or eliminated. "The way to make a lasting impact is to review the services we offer our residents and determine if there are any ones that are not cost effective or may be restructured to reduce costs," he said.
How about starting with the town's payroll? When was the last time there was a serious look at the number of people employed by the town and whether or not they are needed? The school system has taken the majority of the hits over the last few years and has been forced to reduce the size of its personnel (but still not enough, some observers say; the system is still too top heavy with highly paid administrators). And if the town and school administrations want to bolster security at public facilities (an important initiative) following the deadly shooting in Newtown, then other positions must be eliminated to accommodate it.
When a private-sector company downsizes, the remaining workers assume more tasks and responsibilities. Why is the public sector immune to such actions?
Those are some of the questions that should be asked of and by the members of the Boards of Finance and Selectmen and the Representative Town Meeting, all of which will be deliberating on the first selectman's recommended budget over the next few months. For a schedule of budget hearings, visit www.fairfieldct.org.
Additionally, residents should be asking those same questions. If they don't speak up, they'll be facing 6.4 percent more in their tax bills.
Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines or @patricia_hines on Twitter.