Hines Sight / Just because you can spend town money, doesn't mean you should
Updated 2:32 pm, Friday, January 18, 2013
Hold onto your wallets. Your money is flying out faster than planes leaving an airport.
And it's only January. We still have months of budget deliberations for fiscal year 2013-14.
But for now, I, at least, am trying to make sense of the multimillions being spent -- or proposed to be -- in 2012-13.
For four schools alone, renovation, refurbishment or expansion is carrying a price tag of nearly $48 million. To break them down, we are seeing $4.2 million in bonding for new windows and doors and PCB contamination cleanup at Osborn Hill School; $24.2 million for renovation and expansion of Fairfield Woods Middle School; $3.95 million in repairs to Sherman School; and proposed $15 million for renovation and expansion of Riverfield School.
The last one caught even the Board of Selectmen off-guard at a recent informational meeting as members originally thought the project would be $11 million. It was explained, however, that that number was not firm and did not adhere to educational specifications. Gee, that makes me feel better.
And the costs of the Osborn Hill project keep rising, particularly for the cleanup of the PCBs. At one time, the cost was $720,000-plus, and a month later, more than $820,000. Officials still haven't touched the school's closed gym, which has high levels of PCBs, but school administrators say it will be gutted and renovated. What's that going to cost?
Now, granted, some of these millions of dollars are partially reimbursed by the state Department of Education, but in the immediate future, we, the taxpayers, are being asked to pay.
This, of course, is on top of what we already are paying in 2012-13 to support $272 million municipal budget and what we may have to pay in the next fiscal year starting July 1.
It's hard to argue against making schools safer and sounder, but do we have to do these projects all at one time? And what else is on the horizon?
Where does it end? Does it ever end?
What can we do as a community to get a better handle on long-range expenditures so taxpayers are not left to simply pay the bills with little or no forethought by, well, anyone?
And that brings me to our latest debacle regarding the questionable elevated retirement benefits for some longtime firefighters.
We really have to shake our heads in astonishment over this one. I've been a huge supporter of our public safety officers and believe they should be paid properly for putting their lives on the line for all of us. But certainly not at the abuse of hardworking taxpayers.
Seven promotions/transfers and retirements in the Fire Department in 2012 could possibly mean $1.8 million more in pension payouts over the next 30 years, according to figures compiled by Selectman Kevin Kiley. That's because they made higher salaries after they were promoted prior to leaving the force for good.
Fire Chief Richard Felner says he was following the union contract, which apparently allows for open positions to be filled by the most senior firefighters if a promotional list is unavailable. One wasn't. So that begs the question, why wasn't there?
Then there are other provisions that are not followed, like the pension plan rules that require there be 31-day notice of retirement intentions. That wasn't done. One firefighter retired within 12 days of being promoted and another within 14 days. The chief says the two firefighters were promoted after he transferred another one to the line as a shift commander. This particular firefighter filed a grievance about the transfer, and after the first two retired, he was moved back to his former job.
It's all very suspect.
But who is at fault here? Everyone -- from the fire chief to the Fire Commission to the Human Resources Department to the first selectman's office to the individuals who negotiated this potentially expensive provision in the union contract in the first place. Where are the checks and balances?
To sort it all out, First Selectman Mike Tetreau is hiring outside legal counsel. Of course, that is going to cost even more money, but if it saves money in the long run, let's do it.
Until then, taxpayers like me are losing faith in some of our leaders that they don't have our best interests at heart.
Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines or @patricia_hines on Twitter.