Opinion: The Fairfield budget process

Last week's Representative Town Meeting (RTM) budget meetings demonstrated something new in the budget process: they represented the first time in recent years when the RTM, our town's legislative body, tasked with approving the budget, looked in-depth at the town side of the overall budget with the goal of saving our fellow taxpayers some money without sacrificing core services and programs.

In the past, consideration has tended to focus on the Board of Education budget but because that department's request had been trimmed by $3 million by both boards of Selectmen and Finance, I believe many RTM members felt such cuts were already significant and sufficient.

The process for reviewing the town side of the budget was indeed tedious, and it took two evenings to complete our work debating line items on the floor. We heard a number of complaints from people about the "process," beginning with the April 26 meeting. Unfortunately, misinformation and assumptions were thrown around and I would like to clarify any misunderstandings.

Back in March, the Republican caucus broke into small working groups in order to divide up the entire budget into manageable sections so that department requests could be more thoroughly examined. Members spent many hours going through the line items, attending Board of Finance meetings and talking with town officials to fully understand their spending requests and true needs. It was not until the April 1 Board of Finance vote on the final budget numbers when these focus groups could have a base line to begin the process of proposing savings.

This review process took weeks, but our members were prepared to propose specific cuts within certain departments, based on their research, at the full RTM meeting on April 26. However, at our caucus that night an interesting approach was brought to the table for the first time by a Republican member to make a much fairer across-the-board reduction in each department's request for increases (non contractual items only). The possibility of greater cuts was then mentioned at the April 26 RTM meeting.

This approach set off a flurry of criticisms over the process and claims that it was done at the last minute to hide our intentions from the Democrats or town departments or the public. That couldn't be further from the truth. There was absolutely nothing political about this process of looking at additional savings in our budget. It had everything to do with being fiscally conservative and trying to save our taxpayers some money during a difficult economic time and also to set in motion a more rigorous, thoughtful and thorough review process by the RTM, which is one of our responsibilities.

The Republican-proposed cuts were not released until later that week because it took further thought and analysis among 38 Republican members to determine if such a universal cut of the budget would be sustainable in reality. Many of us questioned if cutting out parts of a department's budget were going to truly affect the quality of life and town services and the running of the town itself.

In the end, we decided against an across-the-board cut and went back to the table to instead propose cuts that were justifiable and made good sense. It is also very important to note that, with the exception of a few line items, our strategy was not to cut budgets from the current year's budget, but to reduce the amount of the proposed increases. For example, instead of approving a $55,000 increase to the library, we were simply considering a $45,000 increase.

The final proposed list of cuts brought to the May 3 RTM meeting added up to more than $600,000. After several of these proposed reductions -- both large and small -- were thoughtfully debated and ultimately rejected by a majority of members, the RTM finally voted on a reduction of $193,609 in the proposed budget, reducing the proposed mill rate, as well as lowering the overall budget increase to 1.95 percent from last year. The Board of Finance should be commended for doing an excellent job on the budget; the RTM simply fine-tuned some areas.

While some have criticized our process and the final impact of the cuts on the average family as petty, laborious or unnecessary, I think this examination and the level of deliberations and detail represented the work of an active, engaged RTM that cares about taxes in this town and finding places to save money in a difficult economy.

Additionally, our review backed up a Republican campaign promise to watch spending and to take on a much more thorough examination of the budget. Despite the many hours and weeks of work, we never backed down from our pledge to look at the budget carefully. We believe governments can tighten belts like businesses and families, all of whom have had to re-adjust their spending decisions.

With some tweaking, I believe this even-handed, bi-partisan approach can serve as the foundation and model for how we look at the budget in the future. Regardless of what a few members of the public shouted at us in regards to our allegedly discriminate, petty cuts to public safety and other departments, we were fair and process-oriented in our approach. While some members of the RTM and the public would have preferred even deeper cuts and others none at all, we should all be proud of our work on the budget this year. This was an example of excellent government team work.

Jeff Steele is the Deputy Majority Leader of the RTM. He represents District 2.