Op-ed: Residents’ priorities vs. budget realities
For anyone still in a state of denial about Fairfield’s financial prospects over the next several years, Board of Finance chairman Tom Flynn had some sobering words at last Saturday’s budget hearing.
“As we look out over the next number of years, let’s talk about the things that are going to hit the town,” said Flynn. “The continued state fiscal crisis, education deductions, federal tax law changes (SALT tax) which is going to hurt our citizens in a very direct way, contracts with labor unions which were just settled largely in arrears and will be back up for renewal, contractual costs, binding arbitration, and we also have something we haven’t talked about, a dirty little secret right now and it’s going to impact us all - the revaluation of all our properties that comes in 2020.
“Is anybody paying attention to what the real estate prices in Greenfield Hill have been? Revaluation is a fancy way of saying redistribution - there’s going to be a redistribution of this tax burden after 2020 to the rest of the town as Greenfield Hill property values slump because of the overall state of the economy and because of the change in where people want to live, closer to the center of town,” Flynn said.
“Now, here’s the dirty little secret - the upside, the new commercial development, the sales and remodeling down at the beach has all been factored into our tax base. What hasn’t been factored in is the depression of values where houses haven’t sold yet or their neighbors’ houses have sold at 60 percent of the value. Those are all coming our way. We need to have honest discussions about the fiscal pressures that are pushing down on the town of Fairfield and are squeezing out the much needed services. We need to worry about tomorrow, what our priorities are, why I’ve been advocating for the strategic plan for so long, the decisions today reflect that opportunity, our priorities and our risks.”
Flynn’s message might not have been what the dozens of residents who turned out at the budget session at Fairfield Ludlowe High School wanted to hear. Among the residents’ concerns were marina and channel dredging, senior center infrastructure, public libraries, special education, paving and sidewalks. All of these concerns are legitimate, but they all cost money, and Flynn was telling residents that money won’t be flowing as freely as in the past.
Then there’s education spending, a perennial target of budget cutters because education, as in many towns, represents the largest portion of Fairfield spending.
Dave McKenzie, a Fairfield resident for more than 40 years and RTM member said at the hearing, “I accept that almost 65 percent of the town’s budget goes to education, while only 30 percent of the families have children in the schools. I recognize the importance of investing in Fairfield’s children and providing them with a quality education.
What I don’t understand is why the BOE budget has increased 17 percent in the last five years, 10 percent faster than the cost of living, despite our student population going down by 5 percent in the same time period. Any town resident knows that Connecticut is in dire financial straits and despite annual tax increases will remain a fiscal disaster for years to come. In the past five years house values have dropped significantly and there are multiple for sale signs on every street, some have been there for years. Yet our BOE is still asking for a 4.6 percent budget increase in the face of the shrinking student population, what are they thinking? Do they have a total disregard for the fiscal problem that we’re in, don’t they recognize that significant budget cuts can be realized by eliminating redundancy, without having to dilute the educational benefits for students?”
“We face several ongoing challenges,” said First Selectman Mike Tetreau. “Municipal aid was reduced by $4 million over the last several years, including a $2.5 million reduction in Educational Cost Sharing funds. Our tax revenue is still short the almost $2 million from the sale of the GE property to tax exempt Sacred Heart University. These funds are not coming back. Our goal is to mitigate the ongoing impact of this revenue loses on our residents.” Tetreau noted that an additional challenge is President Trump’s tax plan.
Residents made their opinions known at Saturday’s public hearing, with additional hearings to be scheduled prior to final approval of the budget on May 6. The question will be what will prevail: residents’ optimistic priorities or depressing budget realities.