Fairfield leader's reorganization plan saves $541K, but some say cuts go too far

Newly elected Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick is sworn in by former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays 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 is sworn in by former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays 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 — Hundreds of people are calling for officials to restore the conservation administrator, one of the positions recently cut in First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick’s reorganization plan.

The position was eliminated in the plan and the upcoming budget, sparking concerns that this would understaff the department and leave the town’s wetlands and other natural resources vulnerable to development.

But Kupchick said the restructuring just reassigns the administrator’s tasks and the department will still protect the town.

She said the plan overall will make town government more efficient and add much-needed oversight following the fill pile scandal, which involved several top town employees, many of whom have since been arrested. She created the plan and added other controls in an effort prevent public corruption from happening again.

“It’s going to transform our government,” Kupchick said. “It’s very exciting.”

The controversy

The most controversial change has been the elimination of the conservation administrator, which has led to the creation of an online petition on Charge.org, asking for the position to be restored. More than 700 people had signed it as of Wednesday morning.

“We need to ensure our wetlands, marshlands, open spaces, rivers and other resources are protected and sustainable for future generations,” it reads.

Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz echoed these sentiments at Monday’s selectmen meeting. She said she has heard from environmental and conservation experts that the change is untenable and Fairfield’s staffing shouldn’t be compared to other towns.

“We set the standard for conservation and sustainability in the state,” she said.

She said residents were concerned about the environmental firm having a potential conflict of interest, especially with possible development in town.

Lefkowitz also challenged the timing of the plan, criticizing the details coming to the selectmen the morning of the budget vote and without a chance for the public to comment.

“I’m very frustrated,” she said. “I’m finding it really hard to make an informed decision.”

She commended the work and said there were good things in the plan, but that it also raised questions and concerns.

Kupchick said the new conservation director, coupled with making the wetlands compliance position full-time, will meet the department’s needs. Installing an online permitting system will also cover the loss of the administrator position, she said.

She added the firm is considered one of the best in the state and works with a lot of towns that don’t have conservation departments. The firm is only temporary until new director is hired.

“I’m really looking forward to a new director coming in,” Kupchick said.

She said she was unable to discuss the plan before because it eliminated positions that were still filled. When the budget was released, the conservation administrator and the CAD specialist employees were let go based on human resources policy.

How it came about

Kupchick said the reorganization plan is the result of multiple discussions since she started.

“After a few weeks here, it became glaringly obvious that there was no oversight,” Kupchick said.

She said employees weren’t being held accountable, and there were complaints about customer service and attitudes. There were also no incentives to reward good employees and no consequences for those who needed to be disciplined.

During her first budget cycle, she learned there were possible efficiencies.

After speaking with the new human resources director, Kupchick decided to create an early retirement incentive, allowing for the flexibility to reorganize town hall and make operations more efficient and accountable.

“We went to work,” Kupchick said. “We spent a lot of time working on it.”

She sat down with all of the department heads, asking them how they would like their departments to look.

Of the town’s 18 departments, 11 were modified under her new plan, which is already starting to be implemented and plays a key part in her budget proposal.

It has resulted in a net loss of four positions, though there are a number of positions that were eliminated, modified or added.

Some of the eliminated positions were covered by employees taking early retirement. Seventeen employees opted in, several short of the 23 or so Kupchick anticipated, but enough to generate a $541,000 savings for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We saved a lot of money,” she said.

Other changes

That CAD specialist was replaced in engineering with a senior civil engineer based on the amount of work the engineering department is handling.

“We really needed another engineer to keep up with the workload,” Kupchick said, adding this person could train under one of the longtime engineers who is planning to retire soon.

Another change includes the addition of a floater position for the building, zoning and conservation departments. Kupchick said the building department is the busiest and largest of the three, but the other two don’t really need two administrative positions. She said the two roles largely came into play if someone was on lunch or vacation and a floater could be used instead.

Public works has the most changes.

“There was a lot of corruption in public works,” Kupchick said of the department when she first started.

One of the biggest changes was the creation of a financial manager to oversee requests for proposals and track project costs.

“This is to have tighter controls and ensure things are being done how they should,” she said.

It also eliminated a solid waste and recycling manager, a recycling coordinator and a contract administrator, but adds a scalehouse laborer. Some of the other positions were tweaked.

Another change connected to the scandal was adding a junior buyer to purchasing.

“We put in stronger purchasing policies due to the corruption,” Kupchick said. “There’s a high level of oversight now in purchasing.”

The plan also eliminates a custodian for the library and mechanic for parks and recreation, using contractual services to fill in when needed.

It adds a fire inspector to keep up with the state required inspections and changes a secretary position in economic development to a marketing coordinator.

A part-time grant writer was added to the finance department to follow up on grants from other departments, as well as find new opportunities.

“If you don’t do all of the little things, you could lose a $100,000 grant,” Kupchick said.

Selectman Thomas Flynn applauded Kupchick on her efforts, noting they can make changes as the year goes on and they see what does and doesn’t work.

“It was time for a reorganization,” he said. “I think there’s potential for even better service here.”

kkoerting@newstimes.com