Editorial / Blameless for cuts in town services
If politicians everywhere could share one fantasy, it might be this: To bask in the praise of appreciative taxpayers for cutting spending and at the same time be immune from blame if constituents get angry about the resulting cuts in services.
In Fairfield, it's no fantasy. It's playing out now, six weeks after Fairfield's fiscal year 2012-2013 budget was finalized.
As July 1 and the start of that fiscal year draws near, some library patrons are miffed that neither branch will be open on Saturday mornings anymore, tennis players are upset about reduced hours at the tennis center, and some folks who frequent two small beaches are fuming that cars without parking permits will be able to snag spaces because the sticker-monitors' jobs have been eliminated.
And that may be just the tip of a service-cuts iceberg.
But six weeks removed from budget cuts they ordered, the Representative Town Meeting's Republican majority remains bulletproof against gripes about specific cutbacks.
The GOP-controlled RTM slashed $850,000 from the town's contingency fund -- money set aside for unspecified emergencies.
On the surface, the cut seemed more theoretical than real. Nothing there said the main library would have to close down two evenings a week, plus Saturday mornings, or that on a scorching Sunday, some guy from Shelton would be able to pull his sans-sticker Chevy into a space at Southport Beach unchallenged and mooch off the taxpayers all day.
The town's administration and finance officials already had plans for a good chunk of that contingency money, however. Five municipal employee unions were working without contracts -- some for two years -- and settlement of those labor agreements in the coming year would require money from the fund.
The RTM's Republican leaders knew that, too. But faced with an 11th-hour legal opinion that the RTM could not cut department budgets, they opted to slash $850,000 from the contingency fund, knowing full well that the Democratic administration of First Selectman Michael Tetreau would have to restore it by taking money away from departments.
Their message to the administration -- and even to members of their own party who control the finance board -- was implicit: You should have cut departments allotments yourselves before sending the budget to us.
The result is that RTM members who voted for the cut can live the dream -- at least for now -- earnestly telling constituents they cut spending, and then pointing the finger at the administration if anyone complains about service reductions.
But while the library and recreation department budget cuts are the first to come to light, they hardly add up to $850,000. Not even 20 percent of it.
The library will save $108,000 by having both branches eliminate Saturday morning hours, plus evening hours two days a week, and by scratching some materials purchases.
To save $53,000, the rec department will reduce the hours that lifeguards are on duty at three beaches; won't check vehicles for stickers at two of them; will reduce hours at the tennis center and cut some children's after-school programs and senior-citizen programs.
Together, the recreation and library cuts total $161,000 -- a scant 19 percent of the $850,000 that was cut.
That leaves another $689,000 in potential cuts -- if, in the end, the full $850,000 is needed.
And what about emergencies?
What if the tropical-storm season hits us hard as it did last August? What if another freakish October snowstorm topples trees and knocks out power again?
Any one of those scenes would be nobody's political dream and everybody's nightmare.
Meanwhile, all three beaches where lifeguard hours are being reduced -- South Pine Creek, Sasco and Southport -- are in RTM majority leader David Becker's 1st District. The sticker monitors have been eliminated at two of them, Southport and Sasco.
They are the three smallest beaches on the Sound, but there's a bit of irony there.