Editorial / Trains arrive, time to move on to other issues
It was a decade in arriving.
In the final five months alone, it devoured hundreds of hours of town officials' time, tens of thousands of dollars in lawyers' and accountants' fees and millions of tax dollars to remove tons of tainted soil.
When the first train finally pulled into the new Metro Center station around 4:30 a.m. Monday, it marked both a beginning and an end.
The train's arrival marked the beginning of new options for thousands of rail commuters and, optimists would hope, an new era of development that could revitalize Fairfield's east end.
The arrival also marked the end -- mercifully -- of a decade-long series of political storms spawned by the project and its stewards. From environmental disputes to financial bailouts to huge, 11th-hour cost overruns, the biggest development project in the town's history generated enough political heat to scorch the earth from the new rail platforms all the way to the Town Hall Green.
Never was that heat as searing as in the past six months, when $7.5 million in cost overruns fell into the town's lap and sparked accusations of unauthorized changes in deals with the state and private developer and prompted endless reviews of accounting, the law and contaminated-soil excavation.
But now the station is open -- albeit without a single rest room or place to get a cup of coffee -- there are 1,400 freshly paved parking spaces, and trains are arriving and departing.
So with a town election conveniently completed just weeks before the station opened, it's time for the officials new and old and town residents to put Metro Center in the rear view mirror and move on to other issues.
We have a new first selectman, new leadership on the board of education and new leadership in the Representative Town Meeting. Why not a new era of cooperation in tackling issues pushed from public view by the final Metro Center fire storm?
Containing costs must be a priority in the budget process that will begin after the holidays. Some native Fairfielders -- many of them in the east end of town -- complain bitterly that with rising taxes, they no longer can afford to live in the town they grew up in.
Preventing a widening of the haves/have nots gap is a challenge, and two areas that should be priorities for town boards are containing costs of municipal-employee contracts and the 500-lb. financial gorilla -- the school system.
During the worst economic slump since the Depression, millions of private-sector workers in recent years have faced widespread layoffs, reduced hours for some who kept their jobs, plus sweeping pay cuts and reductions in benefits.
But public-sector employees in Connecticut largely have been spared such measures -- at least until state-employee unions over the summer agreed to givebacks to avoid massive layoffs.
In Fairfield, the town took the right step in the spring when it persuaded the town-hall employees' union to accept a significant change in retirement benefits for new employees -- they'll get a 401(k)-type plan rather than a traditional pension. It's a change implemented broadly in the private sector a decade earlier.
Municipalities across the state face runaway employee-benefits costs -- neighboring Westport, less than half the size of Fairfield, discovered its retiree health-care fund was underfunded by as much as $120 million.
New contract talks in the next year must look hard bringing Fairfield municipal employees more in line with their private-sector counterparts. In every town budget cycle, increased costs obligated by employee contracts must be honored and force cuts in other in other areas.
School spending accounts for more than half of the municipal budget, and parents packed RTM meetings last spring pleading that increases in school spending not be trimmed. The school board initially asked for a 5 percent budget increase, and after various boards and the RTM trimmed that to a 2.8 percent increase, angry parents petitioned for a referendum to restore some of those trims.
The referendum failed to generate anywhere near the votes it needed, and perhaps that is a lesson for school officials planning the next budget.
Still the town has 17 school buildings of various ages and in varying conditions. Deferring needed maintenance to pay for classroom extras is a slippery slope that is best avoided.
It's not too early to sharpen the pencils and fire up the spreadsheet software.
It's not to late for a new spirit of cooperation across the party divide.