The Board of Finance held a public comment session last Saturday, giving residents an opportunity to comment on the recently proposed fiscal year 2019-2020 annual town budget, with student and senior citizens among their top concerns.

“Feedback from our residents is a very important part of the budget process,” said First Selectman Michael Tetreau. “The Saturday morning forum by the Board of Finance has become one of our community traditions during budget season.”

New this year, the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance held two separate budget hearings. The Town of Fairfield’s budget process begins in January and ends in May. Held in the Fairfield Ludlowe High School auditorium, dozens of concerned residents lined up to the microphone to have their voices heard; each was allowed a max of two minutes.

Several senior citizen advocates spoke of concerns related to the elder population, as did residents with school-children with education concerns, including a fourth grade student speaking about education cuts. “I’m speaking as a representative of Fairfield senior advocates, there are at least 9,000 of us,” said Beverly Silverman. “We live here, we pay taxes and we feel we are being ignored. I ask that we will be in your consideration for next year’s budget.”

“We face several ongoing challenges,” said 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 an additional challenge being the Trump tax plan.

On March 13, the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved Tetreau’s recommended budget of $317.5 million, an increase of $12.5 million from the current year, which also called for a $700,000 reduction in the BOE’s request. School employees’ salaries are expected to cost the town approximately $112.7 million. The Representative Town Meeting approved $2.6 million in school capital projects, expected to improve district wide infrastructure.

The first selectman’s recommended budget includes on the town side a recommendation of $136.1 million - an increase of 3.54 percent over last year. Also recommended is a Board of Education budget of $181.7 million - a 4.6 percent increase over last year. This is a $700,000 reduction in the original BOE request of $182.3, a 5 percent increase over the current fiscal year. The BOE budget represents 57 percent of the town’s total budget and is the largest driver for the total tax increase.

State Representative Cristin Vahey McCarthy said, “First Selectman Tetreau has done a tremendous job navigating the challenge of the past years’ budgets while optimizing the strengths of our community.”

Marina and channel dredging concerns, senior center infrastructure, public libraries, special education, paving and sidewalk concerns were also heard. “I am so appreciative and grateful to our town finance leaders in listening to the priorities and concerns of the Fairfield community,” said State Sen. Tony Hwang. “Public service should be all about representing our constituents.”

“We represent all the priorities of the 60,000 residents in Fairfield,” said Board of Finance chairman Tom Flynn. “Our job is to balance those priorities and to help decide what we can afford, what we can pay for. Hearing from you and having these discussions is very helpful. We take the budget as a whole, look at it completely and then make our determinations based on the facts to move the town forward and protect us as much as we possibly can.”

“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 (as voiced by resident Bud Morten), 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.”

“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 (education, seniors). 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.”

Dave McKenzie, resident for more than 40 years and RTM member said, “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?”

“Due to a projected tax sale,” said Tetreau, “use of certain reserve accounts and grand list growth of almost 1 percent, the projected mill rate for this budget is 26.95 (2.24 percent increase).” It was noted by DeWitt, “We do not put together this budget, our CFO and his staff put together this budget.” The BOF is expected to vote on the budget April 3. The Representative Town Meeting will hold budget hearings throughout the month of April and is scheduled to vote May 6.