Fairfield Board of Finance begins budget review

Similar to his press conference three weeks ago, First Selectman Ken Flatto presented figures on the fiscal year 2010--11 budget to the Board of Finance last Thursday.

The budget represents a 1.3 percent tax increase, shows an anticipated mill rate of 19.16 (the current mill rate is 18.90), while the town operating budget would increase from $75.3 million to $77.3 million and the Board of Education budget would grow from $139.5 million to $141.5 million. That's after a recommended cut of $3 million by Flatto.

When Flatto concluded his presentation, the finance board spent the rest of the night going through capital expenditures and many of the revenue lines of the budget. This included discussing the various school projects that fall outside of the Board of Education budget. One thing that caught some BOF members' eyes was a $200,000 request to replace treads and risers in two-and-a-half stairwells at Tomlinson Middle School. Many wondered why the price tag was so high. BOF member Christopher DeWitt wondered why an architect was needed for stair treads.

Director of Operations Tom Cullen said the current tiles are made partly with asbestos and thus, they need air clearance, need to be removed properly, bagged and so forth.

He also added, "The rope and rubber is very expensive." On a positive note, he did say it will last a long time.

"The price just seems excessive conceptually," Board of Finance member Ken Brachfield said. Fellow member Michael Tetreau did a quick computation and said the work will cost approximately $500 a stair.

Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn said Tomlinson was renovated a few years ago and wondered why the stair treads weren't dealt with then. According to Flatto, the reason was because it was on the add-alternate list.

Regarding the $200,000 for stair treads at Tomlinson, BOF member Robert Stone said a house could be built for that price.

He told the Fairfield Citizen, "I think because we're a town, people take advantage of us."

Also brought up was $1.5 million worth of window replacement work that is planned for Fairfield Ludlowe High School in the upcoming budget year.

"I know Ludlowe's not the only school with window issues," said Board of Finance member Robert Bellitto. "What other schools are on the hit list after Ludlowe?"

Cullen mentioned at least a half dozen schools that will get a full or partial window make-over. Bellitto then suggested that perhaps the district should try to do multiple schools at once, to perhaps get a break on a group order. He subsequently asked Cullen to provide cost analysis figures -- at a later date -- on energy efficiency and the potential savings for doing all the windows in the district all at once.

Flynn said it would be good to know what price breaks the town can get before the BOF votes on the budget. The BOF did not solely focus on school-related projects. Members also had questions about the boiler removal work the Department of Public Works is planning. DPW has estimated it will cost approximately $140,000 to do the following work: remove two underground oil tanks at Fire Station 1 (Reef Road); remove one tank at Fire Station 2 (Jennings Road), as well as add a monitoring system; and remove and replace a tank at Fire Station 5 (Congress Street).

DPW Director Rich White said the tanks planned for removal are between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons. Stone responded by saying he's removing a 1,000-gallon underground tank at a property he owns and it's only going to cost him $1,600. He added that he's never paid more than $2,500 to remove a 1,000 gallon tank from the ground.

"It just seems like we're paying a lot more for public infrastructure than we're paying for residential homes," he said.

However, White said the added cost comes into play because of different regulations regarding commercial and residential properties. He told the Fairfield Citizen he has to include contingency funding in the event leakage is found upon removal of a tank. In the event of a leak, clean-up can often cost twice as much, or more, than the cost to remove a non-leaking tank, according to White. He added that DPW has instruments that test the inside of a tank or the soil around a tank, but detecting a leak that is directly below a tank is nearly impossible.

White told the finance board last week there are about 50 underground tanks on public land throughout the town, of varying ages. He promised he would come back to the board with a detailed report on their ages and how DPW is dealing with them in a phased-in, prioritized way.

Tetreau said Thursday that he thinks the town has a legal obligation to move as fast as possible with testing the tanks and removing whatever needs to be removed before they leak, or leak any further (if there are some with leaks currently).

Stone said someone "neutral" should check the soil for oil leaks.

As far as revenue, close to 90 percent of the town's revenue is coming from taxation.

"I think we need to nail down the revenue to understand the impact on what the town can afford and the impact on the taxpayers," said Flynn during a phone interview Sunday afternoon. "We have concerns over state aid, federal stimulus money, some permits and fees that have all gone lower, including interest incomes that have gone lower in the past several years.

"A higher percentage of the town's revenue is coming from property taxes, so even when expenses are held tight, more of the burden is falling directly on property taxes, so our board needs to get comfortable with all of the revenue projections."

A year ago, the finance board reduced the town budget from what was about a 4 percent increase to a smaller percentage increase, and also reduced revenue projections it thought was too high.

"We changed revenue as well as expenses," Flynn said. "We asked [Flatto] to trim over $5 million [out of expenses]. Some of that was the BOE budget."

The proposed budget's current 1.3 percent tax increase amounts to $20 to $25 per quarterly payment for the median home value Fairfield taxpayer, according to Flatto, who noted the average home is now going for about $500,000.