Hines Sight / Taxpayers are breathing a little easier
Members of the boards of Selectmen and Finance took some bold actions last week. Who knew they had it in them?
As they wound down their budget deliberations, the selectmen and financiers cut a total of $7.5 million from the 2013-14 municipal budget requests, dropping the projected tax increase for the next fiscal year to less than 3 percent from a ridiculous 6.4 percent proposed by First Selectman Michael Tetreau.
The budget stands at $297.7 million as it now moves on to the Representative Town Meeting, which will start its deliberations this month. In May, the RTM will adopt a final budget and the Board of Finance will set the mill rate. The new tax rate will take effect on July 1.
It's interesting how the proposed tax increase went from 6.4 percent, then to 4.8 percent following some "adjustments," then to less than 4 percent after the selectmen made cuts, and finally to less thaan 3 percent with the conclusion of the Board of Finance's actions.
Makes me wonder --as I'm certain it does you -- why we began this process in the first place with such a high projected tax increase. Did the town administration think the taxpayers wouldn't be paying attention? Or better yet, does the town administration have to get a better handle on crafting a budget?
But having a tax increase of less than 3 percent doesn't come without sacrifice. Let's take a look at where the cuts were derived.
The Board of Education's budget took a more than $3 million hit -- first, through adjustments made by the selectmen and then a $1.3 million cut by the finance board. How the school system will accommodate the cut is yet to be seen. Let's hope this is an opportunity for the district to seriously look at its top-heavy administration, and possibly reducing its size, instead of taking away from the classroom.
A number of town departments were subject to the knife as well, including the first selectman's office, legal services, information technology, fire, police, public works, human/social services and public library.
A number of town jobs were eliminated (finally) and others will see a reduction in hours.
No one ever said any of this would be easy. But if we all want to keep Fairfield an affordable town, then sacrifice is the key word. Unless you've lived in a cave for the past few years, the economy hasn't been that great. Tough choices had to be made.
That's just what the selectmen and financiers did.
And that brings up the Pequot Library. The Board of Finance voted 5-4 to cut the library's budget request from $350,000 to nothing, which, according to a number of people and sources, spells doom for the historic institution. One-third of the library's operating budget comes via the grant from the town, and the rest through income from an endowment, annual giving, special events and the book sale, among other ways.
I'm torn about this particular cut. Personally, the Pequot holds a special place in my family's heart. My mother, born and raised in Southport, spent a lot of her childhood inside that building.
Her family was poor, and the library gave Mom a place to go within walking distance of their house to learn, read and enrich herself. She always said that was the place where she found peace, as she read volume after volume of Nancy Drew books in the 1930s.
But that's emotion.
On the other hand (the practical and realistic side), questions why taxpayers are asked to continue to pay for the operation of a private, independent library.
I suspect, based on the groundswell of support for the Pequot since the Board of Finance action, the library will continue to operate by either having its funding request restored or stepping up its fundraising and instituting other ways to sustain itself.
And if it means having to do without staff, services or programs, it will survive. Our public libraries have sustained unacceptable budget cuts over the years and they're still here.
Many of us are big supporters of nonprofit organizations; a lot of them vital to the health and well-being of individuals and communities as a whole. But we do so with our personal cash. We donate.
The larger question here is, why does the town provide contributions to outside agencies at all? And why do some get a grant and not others? A horrible precedent was set many years ago when town leaders decided it would be a good idea to help these agencies.
The Board of Finance grappled with these questions last week, but except for the cut to Pequot and some funding for Fairfield Counseling Services, the other 16 weren't touched. One of the original 19 was eliminated by the selectmen. Those 16 contributions to other agencies accounted for $444,049 in the selectmen's recommended budget. That's a lot of money.
The Board of Finance is examining grants to nonprofits and hopefully will provide a plan of action going forward for subsequent fiscal years.
For now, the selectmen and financiers have done right by Fairfield taxpayers, who can breathe a little easier knowing they don't have to pay more than 3 percent in taxes in 2013-14.
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 @patricia_hines on Twitter.