Budget must keep Fairfield affordable for all residents
We the People of Fairfield is a grass- roots organization of town residents whose goal is to keep Fairfield affordable. Since 2009, WTP has sought a town budget with no increase.
This year's budget includes a $12.5 million increase over last year. Town and school officials should be reminded that local seniors have not seen an increase in their social security or pensions since before 2008. Residents who work on Wall Street have had bonuses slashed; builders, electricians, plumbers, landscapers and local businesses all have seen their income decline dramatically as a result of the economic downturn.
WTP asks: Where is the money for the proposed budget increases supposed to come from? Last year, WTP encouraged the town and school system to undergo independent operational audits at a cost of $50,000 each. The audits resulted in recommendations which could save the town $300,000 and the school system a whopping $5 million. We suggest that the town and school officials look to implement these recommendations to reduce the $12.5 million of increases they are requesting in their combined budget.
At our second annual meeting Feb. 9, First Selectman Ken Flatto told how the town could keep taxes down. He said commercial property has increased from 10 percent of the Grand List to 11 percent. He was personally involved with bringing Whole Foods to town, instrumental in getting the third train station built and is encouraging the completion of the Metro Center.
Flatto said reappraisals will reduce the property taxes of 62 percent of homeowners and raise them for 38 percent. He also said he and Selectman Sherri Steeneck were alone in trying to scale back the $24 million renovation of Fairfield Woods Middle School. The selectmen voted 2-1 to cut it down to $18 million, but other boards restored the cut. Flatto encouraged supporters of WTP to be more vocal when these issues come before the boards of Selectmen or Finance or Representative Town Meeting.
Finally, he spoke about the projected tripling of municipal pension costs over the next five years. He said he was reluctant to hold a hard line with unions because they could walk out of negotiations, vanquishing services in the town.
In the past, he said, other towns similar to Fairfield have gone to arbitration with unions and lost because arbitrators have felt affluent towns could afford it. WTP supporters tried to convince Flatto that this was a new time, when the governors of New Jersey and California are seeking changes in pension costs before the expenses bankrupt their states.
Pam Iacono, vice chair of the Board of Education, indicated that Superintendent of Schools David Title has streamlined the budget process and the budget report. He has directed all educational personnel to take a zero-based approach rather than the previous administration's approach of taking the previous year's budget and adding to it.
WTP applauds his efforts.
The first selectman said school enrollment is not growing. It was unchanged last year and this year decreased in some buildings, he said. WTP recommends class sizes be increased by one student in order to relieve any temporary increases in school populations. Studies show that reducing class sizes below the 22-to-25 range does not result in a comparable increase in student achievement.
Jamie Millington, majority chair of the RTM, told WTP supporters that he has put together focus groups to review this year's school budget in more detail than ever before. These groups are looking to separate the "needs" from the "wants."
When the focus groups have completed their review, a list of proposed reductions will be totaled, Millington said. Once the entire budget is approved, the superintendent would recommend to the school board to account for any reduction in the bottom line. The board would have final say. WTP and various municipal bodies have been criticized in the past for recommending cuts -- or actually cutting -- increases in the school budget by a particular dollar amount without detailing where reductions should be made. This year, if RTM cuts the school budget, will recommend specific areas. If the school board and superintendent were to reduce spending elsewhere, WTP feels they should publicly justify it.
WTP also recommends the following:
The school superintendent should consider dissolving the house system at the two high schools this year. The savings derived could be incorporated into this years budget, and details of implementation could be worked out between June and August.
Title also should ask teachers to suggest ways to eliminate waste and streamline operations throughout the system.
Rather than hiring people to run summer school programs, the principals, who are paid to work 12 months, should supervise them.
Curriculum coordinator positions, which some teachers in the system have told WTP are redundant, should be eliminated in the budget for next year. The personnel now holding these positions would need to be absorbed back into the system. Under his budget, Title is requesting additional staff; perhaps these individuals could be used in those new positions
The school system should fully implemented all components of the Munis accounting system (i.e comparison of actual expenditures to budget). We feel strongly that this should be accomplished immediately so that town bodies such as the Board of Selectmen, school and finance boards and RTM have accurate information at their disposal.
Flatto should ask town employees to suggest ways to cut wasteful spending and streamline operations.
The costs of town and school medical benefits should be reviewed. We understand that 2009-2010 medical-benefit costs per employee was $16,500 annually. An RTM representative said she purchased similar medical benefits for her family for $15,000. Why should it cost Fairfield $1,500 more for each employee when they are purchasing benefits for about 1,000 employees?
Kate Daniello and Bob Focellina are co-founders of We The People. Those interested in becoming group supporters may e-mail the organization at email@example.com.