Flatto delivers State of Town address; sides spar over how "rosy" future is for town
Sides spar over how "rosy" 2010 will be
First Selectman Ken Flatto gave an upbeat appraisal of Fairfield in his 2010 State of the Town address Monday night before the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) at Osborn Hill Elementary.
The speech, lasting about 15 minutes, cited Fairfield's recent awards from Connecticut Magazine as the best town of its size in the state and from CNN/Money magazine in 2008 as one of the top 10 "mid-sized communities" in America.
"We have one of the most beautiful, well-managed communities in the nation and we have faced up to our town responsibilities during this daunting era of uncertainty and recession," Flatto said. "The community of Fairfield is sustaining excellence and quality of life through these turbulent times."
Flatto pledged completion of this town's third train station by this year's end, signaled a desire to keep next year's taxes "fairly level" and introduced a slew of new initiatives aimed at improving this town's traffic infrastructure, increasing energy efficiency in homes and public buildings, and promoting healthier lifestyles and more abundant cultural offerings.
But the speech drew fire from Republican leaders who said Flatto skirted major challenges facing the town -- like the depressed municipal pension fund, which sunk in value by about $90 million between June 2008 and March 2009 in the wake of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme and nose-diving stock markets around the globe. Flatto was also accused of not addressing the potential expansion of Fairfield Woods Middle School, which could cost $20 million. Republicans said the speech focused instead on lifestyle initiatives, presenting an overly "rosy" picture of the town.
"To say that 2009 was `turbulent' is truthful," said Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Steele, R-2, referring to a word Flatto used twice in his speech. "But it was a disastrous year for us -- financially disastrous -- and it was a little shocking that he didn't even address the challenges we face."
In a written response to the speech, RTM Majority Leader James Millington, R-9, said: "Although it is easier and more pleasant to discuss quality-of-life enhancements, we must face reality. We are facing serious financial concerns and our residents cannot afford to continue to carry the burden of annual tax increases. We must focus on working in a bi-partisan manner to set a long-term plan to deal with our budget and pension concerns."
The Democratic RTM members viewed things differently. Minority Leader Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-6, wrote in an e-mail to the Fairfield Citizen: "Ken did not choose to focus his remarks simply on the struggles we now face. He acknowledged the challenges, but did not choose to stop with that. Instead, he focused on looking ahead at what we can do within our current context."
Flatto, in discussions afterward, admitted his speech was vague on the Fairfield Metro Center, but said that he agreed last week with RTM Moderator Jim Walsh, R-1, about giving a full report on the project at next month's RTM meeting. The metro center project has been roiled for years by a slew of problems.
"There have been a few people trying to create lots of misinformation about the train station and it's important to provide the facts," Flatto said.
He said that it was important for him to make a positive address. He then acknowledged that the Republicans now make up the majority of the RTM and the Board of Finance.
"In the past, it's been easy to just swipe from the sidelines, but now they have some real responsibility," he said. "The new officials have a choice. They can just criticize, which is easy to do, or they can work hard to find productive solutions."
Flatto said that last year there were 10 to 15 RTM Republicans who championed low taxes but then sought to give the Board of Education everything it asked for. "They gave no specifics," he said, on how that budgetary gap might be bridged.
"But that game is finished," he continued. "They have responsibility now. But we'll try to be bipartisan. The community doesn't want bickering. It wants results."
Millington and Steele said Republicans won elections last fall on a platform that the past decade's tax increases were unsustainable. In the aftermath of November's election, Flatto called for town department heads to send him lean budget proposals so that taxes will not mushroom.
"Now he says he'll try to keep them `fairly level,'" Millington said.
Flatto responded that he still wants to prevent tax increases as much as possible.
"I would like to get as close to a zero percent increase as possible, which is what I said in November," Flatto said. "You're surely not going to see a big tax increase from me."
"[The Republican leaders] said they will hold you to that," a reporter said.
"They can say what they want," Flatto said.