Fairfield Republicans on State of the Town
Fairfielders take great pride in living in such a wonderful community where we can raise our families, work in meaningful jobs, and enjoy the good things life has to offer. The quality of life here continues to make Fairfield one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Unfortunately, our ability to maintain this stature has become less clear and there are no quick and easy solutions for getting us back on a more sustainable track.
This said, however, Fairfield Republicans view 2012 as a great opportunity to turn the tide and begin a new era of fiscal-responsibility and government transparency in our town. Tonight we want to share our perspectives on the state of the town and lay out our ideas for leading Fairfield through these difficult times.
The free spending habits of the previous administration inflated Fairfield's budget by over $100 million dollars in just 10 years, that is an increase of over 70 percent. This drove up property taxes making our town increasingly less affordable to live and work for everyone, especially our seniors on fixed incomes and those who lost their jobs due to the recession. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, we found ourselves in the worst economic environment in a generation, highly leveraged with serious financial and contractual liabilities that make it impossible to maintain even a flat year-over-year budget without forcing layoffs and/or deep reductions in services that residents have come to expect and rely upon.
Two years ago, Fairfield Republicans won a majority of seats on the RTM for the first time since 2001. Taxpayers had faith in our resolve to restore fiscal responsibility to town government -- our mandate was to "tighten the town's belt" as they were doing in their own households. We went to work with a sense of urgency, providing much needed support for Republican officials on other town bodies who had already been demonstrating common sense, fiscally responsible leadership in their elected roles. The result was one of the most productive terms in the town's history.
The Republican-led RTM initiated a new budget review process that looked closely at all line items. We saved millions of dollars by increasing the scrutiny of all appropriations, cutting discretionary spending, placing restrictions on what we bond, insisting on long-term financial planning, and making sound decisions to protect our credit rating. Once viewed as a rubber-stamp, Republicans took bold actions to restore the RTM as a vital town body once again, finding over $1 million in additional savings beyond the budget that had been presented to us by conducting our own comprehensive, line-by-line budget review and by decreasing the bonded debt proposals that were brought forward.
For the first time in town history, the RTM voted down unsustainable union contracts and began transitioning new town hall employees from a pension to 401a plans to reduce the Town's exposure to market risk. Our resolve set the tone for future negotiations and enabled us to achieve measurable gains in short and long-term costs.
But there is constant pressure on the budget. Sharp cost increases relating to employee compensation, health and post-retirement benefits, plus increases in our debt service could cause next year's budget to be roughly $10-12 million higher than this year by definition, without providing any additional services for taxpayers. The strength of our educational system and the overall attractiveness of our town continue to bring new families to the area, putting further pressure on our infrastructure. Concurrently, credit-rating agencies are claiming our "rainy day" fund is under-funded by upwards of $6 million in comparison to other similar towns and Moody's just downgraded Connecticut State's general obligation rating, making it that much harder for Fairfield to retain its coveted triple-A rating over the longer term.
While costs continue to increase, there is a very real possibility we could see a decline in revenues. We have hundreds of disputes related to the 2010 assessment yet to be resolved, which could have a substantial impact on the actual revenue versus what we budgeted. Additionally, the nearly $8 million in state funding we have relied upon is no guarantee, considering we already experienced a decrease in this budget cycle. Commercial development -- taken with a balanced approach that respects the Fairfield we have all come to enjoy -- is of significant importance. We stand ready to work with the administration and town planning bodies to move Fairfield in a prosperous direction which will bring with it increased revenues and functionality for our residents and business owners.
In 2012, it will be hard for us to reduce the amount we borrow, given our aging infrastructure and the urgent projects on our priority list. Estimates have been as high as $14 million to replace the roof at Fairfield Warde High School, which currently has over 150 leaks. We also have several oil tanks on town properties that exceeded their useful life and need to be removed to avoid fines from the state -- they could cost a few hundred thousand each to remove and replace.
First Selectman Tetreau faces many challenges in his first full-term and we are ready to work with him and our Democratic-RTM counterparts to address them head on in a truly bi-partisan fashion. We urge him to make the tough decisions the previous administration avoided for years, including re-evaluating staffing levels, recalibrating union agreements, implementing the technology advances that our archaic infrastructure needs to efficiently thrive, and reviewing the significant structural changes that will save taxpayer dollars. We also urge the first selectman to set up a committee on charter reform to explore streamlining town government to meet the challenges of the 21st century and to make our government run more efficiently and to prevent future abuses of power that we experienced throughout the Metro Center project.
Lastly, we urge him to expedite the disputes generated from the 2010 revaluation assessment, to settle those claims so taxpayers can move on and the town can readily understand the financial implications of any changes. We believe we also need to review the entire revaluation process to determine why hundreds of taxpayers claim to have such an enormous gap between their assessment and the current market realities.
Republicans will continue to work hard and provide common sense, fiscally responsible leadership on behalf of taxpayers and we have already made progress toward these goals. We have forged close working relationships with the Democrats on the RTM, we have formed a blight-review committee to address this ongoing matter of concern and we have begun a further transformation of the budget process to improve transparency for all.
Regarding spending, we are fully committed to slowing the growth of spending and reducing the cost of government. RTM Republicans will lead an effort to work with other town bodies and department heads to further streamline and open the budget approval process to maximize information flow and transparency. This RTM has begun publishing full agenda packets and committee reports on the internet in advance of our meetings bringing Fairfield one step closer to the digital, green, and open government age. We will continue to insist on a more rigorous and informative funding approval process from town officials and ask the hard questions that residents demand answers to in our roles as public officials. This includes a new more open and inclusive budget process at the RTM. Starting this year the RTM will hold a series of budget hearings fully open to the public. RTM Republicans have listened to citizen feedback, once again improved the budget process for the better, and will bring forward the level of vetting, deliberation, and openness that Fairfield's residents deserve.
Regarding our long-term liabilities, we are fully committed to continuing to make tough decisions to control our long-term liabilities and preserve our valuable bond rating. We will push aggressively to ensure union contracts are negotiated for long-term affordability that they are presented for approval with a full analysis of their total long-term financial implications. We will also work to reduce our debt by phasing specific capital improvement projects into the operating budget and holding the line on discretionary projects.
Regarding education, we are fully committed to making reasonable and prudent investments in our education system with a focus on resources that go directly to students. While the Board of Education achieved significant savings on the recent teacher's and administrator's contracts, employee costs continue to place limitations on the school districts. We look forward to working with the Board of Ed and superintendent to continue to find opportunities to make the school district more efficient and less costly to operate. We call and will actively work with the administration and the Board of Ed to seek out and implement cost savings in areas of synergy.
For our town's seniors, we are fully committed to continuing the Senior Tax Relief program that puts meaningful dollars back in the pockets of seniors who helped build our town. High and rising property taxes continue to make it more and more difficult for seniors to remain in their homes. We look forward to engaging with seniors in our community to understand how we can continue to improve upon this successful program and others. It is time that we demonstrate to our senior population that they are part of the fabric of our community and we are serious when we say we want them to remain in Fairfield.
Finally, we look forward to a productive budget season and encourage all interested residents contact us to express their thoughts and opinions. We thank the first selectman for his continued service to the town and wish him the best in his coming term; we also thank all the elected volunteers on Board of Finance and Board of Education, as well as other town boards and commissions, for their tireless service to the town.
We wish our RTM colleagues across the aisle a safe and enjoyable new year and pledge to work with them over the remainder of our term to better serve the residents of our town. In the end, we are not simply a separate set of town bodies, members of different parties, "town" or "education" sides; we are all members of the citizenry of the town of Fairfield. We are one town and must work each and every day toward the betterment of the lives of all Fairfielders.
Thank you for your time and have a safe new year.