Editor's notebook: Fairfield budget round-up
Published 10:46 am, Wednesday, May 12, 2010
This is the first year that I've sat in on Fairfield's budget process. Almost exactly a year ago, having just taken over the paper here, I missed most of last year's debates and hot budget topics.
That being said, for the last five years, working in both Westport and Darien, I've been a close observer of both towns' budget processes. Sitting through Tuesday night's extended Representative Town Meeting (RTM) budget session was tough (the meeting outlasted my computer battery) but extremely enlightening.
The concept of a partisan town council is something I'm still getting used to -- this is not the case in most of the Fairfield County towns. While I still see the partisanship as unnecessarily divisive in local government, it was obvious that each party (with a few exceptions) really stuck together.
It was obvious that not everyone was merely toeing the party line, either, and that many RTM members had not only done extensive research into the budget, but that they were also willing to change their minds when new information was made available.
One member of the public spoke out Tuesday night accusing the town council of being "petty," referring to its decision to cut $100 here and $300 there for some town departments. It might seem like that, yes, and I can understand frustration for cutting amounts equivalent to, say, our monthly cable bill. But in a time when the constituency is asking for our government to spend its money prudently and frugally, these are the types of X-acto cuts that must be made.
Minutiae, unfortunately, is what budgeting is all about. When teaching your children how to budget their money, you don't say to them, "Well, that toothpaste is 30 cents more, but what's another 30 cents?" Similarly, we trust our town council to refrain from unnecessary extravagancy.
The great thing about exposing these "minor" cuts in such a public forum is that the public can see exactly where their funding might be needed. If $300 seems like a minor amount to you, why not make a gift to the town in that amount to help support a particular department or project?
What was disappointing this week, though, was the decision to cut the fire department's funding for maintenance and repair of its buildings. With leaky roofs and exposed asbestos, the stations are long overdue for an upgrade, and the longer the town waits to fix these things, the bigger the costs will be in the end. Let's hope that this funding cut wasn't in response to Monday night's RTM decision keep $310,000 in the budget to cover the fire department's overtime shifts.
It's reassuring to know that the police department, however, will be able to add another detective to its roster. I don't support the fear-mongering that many media outlets propel, but it would seem to be a fact that Fairfield's crime rate has gone up pretty steeply in the past year and a half. This was a necessary addition.
Similarly, the decision not to cut $10,000 in funding for the library was a welcome choice. The library's importance to this town should not be underestimated, and I'm glad that it wasn't.
The town's information technology upgrades will have to wait another year at least. Information technology department head Donald Leslie, while stirring the crowd up with a dig at the town's Republicans, also pointed out that Fairfield's online capabilities are far behind some of its county contemporaries, which is true -- take a look at westportct.gov to see some of the things Westport offers on its site, like streaming video of town meetings, in real time and archived. (Let's hope that Fair TV makes it to a few more town meetings this year so meetings will at least be televised if they can't be on the web.)
Repairs for the stone wall at Lower Wharf, which was damaged during the March wind storm, will also have to wait, a decision that could be costly to the town in the end if the surrounding sandbar continues spreading into unwanted territory.
All said, I think the end result from the RTM was a compromise -- or as close as it gets to one. The Republicans set out to cut $350,000 from the Board of Finance-recommended budget, but in the end $193,609 was cut. This should indicate that RTM members from both parties were both satisfied and dissatisfied with the budget outcome.
It's a pretty lean budget, and doesn't allow for too many surprises. Probably like many town officials, I both look forward to and worry about the events of the coming year.