Budget forum: Many decry tax hike; others flunk school cuts
A forum Saturday morning on the proposed 2013-14 town budget drew more than 100 people, with many residents saying the town is becoming unaffordable while other argued that programs in the town's schools, such as music and world languages, shouldn't bear the brunt of potential cuts by town boards.
The forum, held by the town's Board of Finance at the Fairfield Senior Center, came a day after First Selectman Michael Tetreau announced that the projected tax increase for the proposed $287 million budget has been reduced from an initial 6.4 percent to 4.8 percent.
But many of the roughly 50 residents who spoke said the tax increase is still too high.
"This wonderful town is becoming unaffordable with all the tax increases," said Charlotte Bartol of Sasco Hill Road. She said she's had to make cuts to her family's budget and that it is "so frustrating I'm making all the cuts but our town isn't." "We the people of Fairfield need a break, a financial break," Bartol said.
Of the reduction in next fiscal year's proposed tax increase, said John Donovan of Taintor Drive, "We're halfway there." Donovan said the tax increase should equal the rate of inflation.
David Thornton of Valley Road said former First Selectman John J. Sullivan, who led the town from 1959 to 1983, kept taxes down, but taxes more recently have continued to climb and government has continued to grow. "I think we're going crazy. Enough already. None of this happened under previous administrations, but now it has become chronic," he said.
Vincent Maiolo of Homeland Street said the Board of Finance has to make difficult decisions to minimize the next fiscal year's tax increase and have the town function within a budget supported by that tax increase. "Forty-one years ago, I made the choice to live here, never realizing I may not have the choice to stay here," Maiolo said.
But Matthew Hutzelmann of Pansy Road said his family chose to live in Fairfield because of the reputation of its school system. "There's a word for a [place] that has low taxes and low services. It's called Alabama and Mississippi," he said. "If taxes are too high, then leave now. I'm concerned about people who are going to risk my children's future and education because their children have already gone through the schools."
"I'm not concerned with someone who has a Harbor Road address talking about affordability issues," Hutzelmann said, referring to a road in the affluent Southport section of town. "That's disgraceful."
Several residents said they fear that cuts to the Board of Education's proposed budget would lead to cuts to world languages and music programs in the public schools.
Mike McGrath of Jackman Avenue said children today need more education, not less, because there is more to know and the world was more competitive. Cutting music programs, he said, would wind up increasing costs because 50 to 100 students who had one teacher would have to placed somewhere else.
Fred Nangle of Woods End Road said he moved to Fairfield because of its educational system and supports maintaining the budget approved by the Board of Education. He said the school system is not just about the future of students, but affects property values and therefore relates to the future of homeowners without children in schools.
But other residents, including several real estate agents, said high taxes cause property values to decline because people looking to buy a home will consider other towns where the services are just as good but the taxes are lower. "People are not moving to Fairfield. They're moving to Westport," said Candace Paige of Hanford Drive. "The Westport taxes are actually lower. You're getting more bang for your buck in Westport."
Anne Estelle, of Pequot Court, a local real estate agent and resident of town since 1967, said every local tax increase lowers the value of Fairfield homes because similar towns, such as Westport, Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich, have taxes from 20 percent to 50 percent lower than Fairfield. "If we keep going on this road, remember Bridgeport had this problem years ago," she said.
Greg DiMaggio of Hulls Farm Road said the cost of commuting, college tuition and state and federal taxes are all going up. "If our home is our biggest asset ... what's going to happen when our biggest asset starts declining?" he said.
Virginia Sanford of Hillside Road said her local taxes had increased 100 percent in five years and that Fairfield's government is "not run efficiently." "Other towns have better schools and lower taxes. You're killing the golden goose. You have taxed us out of existence," Sanford said.
John Koren of Harbor Road said Fairfield should compare itself to towns that have lower taxes and an equal or better educational system, and Nancy Legare of Unquowa Road, a 50-year resident of Fairfield, said, "If other towns in the area can keep their taxes down, Fairfield should strive to do so."
But Liz Sheppard said Greenwich had a strong corporate tax base to help contain tax increases, and questioned what Fairfield is doing to attract corporations to shift some of the tax burden off homeowners.
Suzanne Miska of Ryegate Road said programs in the public schools aren't what drove increases in the town budget and taxes. She said instead those factors include health insurance, pensions and salaries of town employees and that town boards and the Board of Education need to examine the effect of those on town budgets. She said she wasn't demeaning people who provide services to the town but the town "can't continue going down this road."
Cathy Coyle of Sherwood Farm Road questioned why people were discussing potential cuts to programs in the schools when those cuts, if they happened, wouldn't address the "main cost drivers." "We really need to look at our contractual obligations. We need to look at our pensions and health care," Coyle said. "We really can't afford these obligations."
Katherine Wiant of Beach Road said only 0.68 percent of the Board of Education's proposed 4.68 percent increase in 2013-14 is linked to educational programs.
Thomas Flynn, chairman of the Board of Finance, said his board was not involved in negotiations between the town and unions representing town employees, but is required by law to fund contracts that result from those negotiations.
Robert Bellitto Jr., a Board of Finance member, said, "The long-range issues we're dealing with didn't happen overnight, and they're not going to be solved overnight."
In response to residents who worried that cuts to the Board of Education's proposed budget could affect music programs and world languages, Flynn said the Board of Finance can't decide how the school board spends money. "This board gets to vote on one number," Flynn said, referring to the overall Board of Education budget. "We don't get to decide, if there's an adjustment to the budget, positively or negatively, how those funds are spent."
Several residents said the town should examine whether some of the services provided by town employees could be privatized, while others compared working in the private sector to working in the public sector.
Dick Cooke of Sasco Hill Road said corporate America "nearly went out of business" and had to change its ways. He said it is time to put the public sector on the same footing as the private sector.
George Barrios of Martingale Lane said it isn't uncommon in the private sector for managers to be told to cut budgets by 10 percent while their performance goals were raised. "Nine times out of 10 they deliver ... If they don't deliver, you end up finding people who can deliver," he said.
But Flynn indicated that comparisons between government and the private sector are faulty because the private sector is not mandated to provide certain services at prevailing wages. In regard to labor costs, Flynn said Connecticut is "a binding arbitration state" and Fairfield is "considered a wealthy municipality by the state." Flynn said a discussion about services that the town provides, and whether some could be privatized or eliminated, should take place before a discussion of the proposed budget so town department heads can plan and evaluate.
Several Board of Finance members, meanwhile, said they are still displeased at the 4.8 percent project tax increase and they will try to reduce it during their impending review of the new budget.
"I certainly do intend on bringing these numbers down," said finance board member Catherine Albin.
James Walsh, also a Board of Finance member, said, "Personally I see that number as having to come substantially down.
Flynn, the board's chairman, said, "I too feel the tax increase is too high and is unsustainable."