Fairfield considers $18 million budget increase

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Newly elected Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick smiles as she delivers her address during the Oath of Office Ceremony at Warde High School in Fairfield, Conn. on Monday, November 25, 2019.

Newly elected Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick smiles as she delivers her address during the Oath of Office Ceremony at Warde High School in Fairfield, Conn. on Monday, November 25, 2019.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The selectmen are considering a nearly $335.5 million budget, which is nearly 6 percent more than the current allocations.

The budget is about $18 million, or 5.7 percent, more than the current allocations and includes nearly $192.1 million for the schools, $30.4 million for shared education expenses and $113 million for the town.

“I believe that this is a fiscally responsible budget,” First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said while presenting her proposal this week.

This translates to a 1.98 percent tax increase, but officials cautioned each taxpayer may see a different change based on the recent revaluation. Town Assessor Ross Murray said some areas saw increases over the past five years, while others decreased.

“It depends where you live in town for what change happened to you,” he said.

The biggest discussion centered around the school funding, which includes $2 million less than the school board requested, but $7.5 million more than the current year.

Kupchick said this $2 million accounts for less than 1 percent of the total education budget. She said she drew on her time with the school board and felt this was feasible for the district, especially since the health insurance estimate is expected to decrease.

“I believe that this budget continues the town’s commitment to education,” Kupchick said, adding this is the second-largest education increase in a decade.

She said the current annual increases on the school side were not sustainable.

Selectman Thomas Flynn also called out the steady increases, questioning how the budget continues to rise and staffing has stayed relatively consistent though overall enrollment has decreased by about 9 percent in the past 10 years.

“These are dangerous trends,” he said.

School officials said one reason is bringing more services in house and adding preventative programs to help the growing number of students with special needs. State requirements and course changes have also caused the district to hire more teachers.

Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz said she’s received a number of emails from parents supporting the education budget the school board adopted and there was a rally last weekend protesting the $2 million cut.

Cummings also cautioned that the $2 million cut would most likely affect positions since personnel is their biggest budget driver. He said they couldn’t delay building or maintenance projects because it will create bigger problems down the road.

“Some of this at some point will fall to staffing and benefits,” he said.

School board chairwoman Christine Vitale said the board already picked the low-hanging fruit from the superintendent's proposal when they cut $250,000. She said the students have already given up so much with COVID.

“Now it’s time for our community to come together to restore what they’ve lost,” she said, adding fully funding the schools’ request is the first step.

School officials also said about $2.5 million of their increase isn’t a true increase because those items were already included in this budget but were funded using an nonrecurring fund with savings due to COVID, which are not available this year and instead need to be included in the operating budget.

The town is also replenishing funds it drew to cover the zero percent tax increase last year for residents due to COVID.

A key part of the budget is Kupchick’s reorganization, which is coupled with the early retirement plan offered this winter. Seventeen employees took advantage of it, giving Kupchick and other staff the chance to reshuffle some positions, resulting in the net reduction of four employees, and generating about $613,000 in savings for the next budget.

The eliminated positions, including the conservation administrator, went into effect last Friday when Kupchick’s budget went live. Other eliminated positions were already vacated by employees who took the early retirement.

Other things included in Kupchick’s budget are modernizing parts of government with online permitting software, an automated time and attendance system to hold employees accountable and making the conference rooms able to hold virtual meetings.

It also maintains and improves buildings, roads, bridges and technology.

“I’m proud of what’s been put in the budget to sustain the financial foundation that’s been built over a long period of time and to repair some of the things that needed to be done last year to assist citizens with a zero percent tax increase,” Flynn said.

He cautioned the economic impact of COVID isn’t done though and people are still struggling financially.

“This budget goes a long way in recognizing that,” Flynn said.

The selectmen will vote on the budget on Monday.