Just before voting to pass a $48,194,755 town budget recommendation to the Board of Finance, the Board of Selectmen on Monday decided to cut $400,000 worth of improvements to the Short Lane property added to Weed Beach Park and make other, much smaller adjustments.
Selectmen also said a bill of $435,000 for Darien’s share of teacher retirement benefits will also likely be approved by the state, and the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant that goes to town coffers is also now expected to come in this year. The amount, not specified during the budget meeting, wasn’t expected when the town administrator’s budget proposal was first presented to selectmen. That grant money goes to the town budget, not the Board of Education budget.
As part of a package of budget recommendations, selectmen also approved a total of $10.5 million in separate budgets for capital and operating expenditures for town sanitary sewers and parking. Those budgets get revenue from sources other than taxes.
“I believe with those adjustments to the budget, we can feel confident that we’re moving forward a very good budget that invests wisely in our town, doesn’t overspend, invests in the areas where it will be most impactful to the taxpayers, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said just before the final votes.
The Board of Selectmen’s approved budget now goes to the Board of Finance, which will officially receive it this coming Tuesday night, March 5. The Finance Board can make changes to the budget, as well as changes to the overall budget amount for the school district. That board’s proposed budget is sent to the Representative Town Meeting, which makes the final decision on spending and the tax rate at its May 13 meeting.
One big expense not in the selectmen’s budget proposal: The estimated $435,000 bill for teacher’s retirement benefits that they expect the state Legislature will approve sometime in the spring or summer. Selectmen said that including that money in a contingency account was the responsibility of the Board of Finance, since it never would be normally included in the budget selectmen present to the Finance Board.
Selectmen did decide to keep $600,000 for improvements to the Highland Farm property so that the 16-acre parcel, bought from the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club, can get parking lots and a pathway, helping town residents to use the property.
The board also decided to recommend $332,000 in funding to hire three civilian dispatchers, allowing the Police Department to redeploy police officers in order to have an officer dedicated solely to narcotics enforcement (working with police in nearby cities and towns) and a school resource officer for Middlesex Middle School, similar to the SRO now at Darien High School.
Selectmen also decided against setting aside $100,000 in next year’s budget for an estimated $300,000 cost for equipment that would allow fire engines racing to the scene of an emergency to change traffic lights to green along the firefighters’ route.
Instead, selectmen decided the appropriation will be paid for all at once when the town buys the system from Opticom, a little over three years from now. Town Administrator Kathleen Buch had proposed the gradual financing of the purchase to help keep the town budget a bit flatter over time.
“I feel that we had a very good, very deliberative, all-inclusive process,” Stevenson said after the unanimous vote on the budget.
These amounts for various budgets were included in the package approved by the Board of Selectmen:
- General Operating Budget: $33,992,828 (last year’s approved, current budget: $32,283,101)
- Debt Service: $10,878,569 (current budget: $10,813,140)
- Transfers out to other funds: $3,323,358 (current budget: $2,592,996)
- Total from above: $48,194,755 (an increase of 5.48 percent over the current budget: $45,689,237)
OTHER BUDGETS APPROVED:
- Sewer operating budget: $4,029,645 (current budget: $3,687,372)
- Parking lot administration fund: $1,593,100 (current budget: $1,071,100)
- Reserve fund: $3,856,732 (current budget: $2,984,106)
- Sewer capital budget: $117,600 (current budget: $143,000)
- Parking capital budget: $899,529 (current budget: $382,953)
The Bill for Teachers Retirement
The board decided against adding $435,000 to the budget as a contingency fund for future teacher retirement benefits, as proposed by Town Administrator Kathleen Buch.
The state currently pays all retirement benefits for public school teachers in Connecticut, but Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed a plan mandating that towns and cities take on 25 percent of the cost, phased in over three years. For Darien, the cost would be an estimated $435,000 in the first year.
By the third fiscal year, the bill would rise to about $1.3 million, Stevenson said. The payments won’t be one-time expenditures, but ongoing, and a bit less than 1 percent of this year’s town budget.
With the exception of Thorne, most of the board members agreed that it would be prudent to include that cost in the town budget but since it isn’t part of what selectmen are in charge of spending for town services, the contingency is really part of the Board of Finance responsibilities, and ultimately the Board of Education.
Thorne said he was reluctant to raise money from taxpayers that might not have to be used if the Legislature rejects the governor’s proposal”
“I feel in general, we worked hard and I think we have a good budget,” he said. “We made good decisions. […] We didn’t allow fat. We don’t see stuff that we really want to cut, despite the thunderclouds on the horizon — it’s not raining yet. And to try to prepare for that is very problematic in a couple of ways — one is forecasting, and one is kind of pre-taxing for something that might be coming. That’s not such a good idea. If it turns out we really don’t need that, people are going to be angry with us.”
The Board of Finance can also vote to raise taxes to pay for the retirement bill if the Legislature passes it after the Representative Town Meeting votes on the town budget and sets the tax rate on May 13.
Under the governor’s proposal, which could be changed by the Legislature or not passed at all, the $435,000 would be increased each year for three years until towns pay 25 percent of teacher’s retirement benefits.
The $435,000 would be held in a contingency fund controlled by town officials and only given to the Board of Education’s control if the state proposal becomes law. If the money was transferred beforehand, the Board of Education has the legal right to do what it wants with the money. Selectmen indicated that they don’t want to ask the Board of Ed to return it if that happens.
“We really are the policy board,” Selectman Susan Marks said in the discussion. “To me this is a financial policy versus a policy of the town, so I think we should recommend to the Board of Finance, but I don’t think we should have it in our budget.”
Selectman Marc Thorne said: “There’s a lot of concern on the part of a lot of the taxpayers, and they may be expecting us to take some preparations for the onslaught that is coming, so it’s not an easy thing to answer. I don’t like the idea of taxing, any more than we have to, in advance. […]” He said he didn’t mind asking the Board of Finance to think about whether or not to set up the contingency account.
Selectman Pamela Sparkman said: “I do think that our constituents are probably looking to us tonight thinking are we going to maybe make some heavier cuts knowing the possibility of things coming down the line. […] If the Board of Finance can put it in the budget, they should. I do agree with you that it shouldn’t be in the Board of Selectmen’s budget, I don’t think that makes sense at all.”
Board members decided to recommend to the Board of Finance that they reserve for it. Unanimous agreement.
Jack Davis, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting Finance and Budget Committee, was in the room and asked to speak. He said:
“When these conversations were occurring last year, the general opinion was not to reserve for these, but if we get hit with a dollar amount, whether the car tax or the teacher’s pension, that the Board of Finance has the ability to do a supplemental tax, and that’s valuable in two ways—”
Stevenson interrupted him: “I think I understand what you’re saying, Jack, and, honestly, I don’t mean to cut you off, but I think all we’re going to do is have that conversation with the Board of Finance. Our discussion here was ‘Do we absorb it into our budget?’ And yes, I hear you, there’s some great value in not reserving it in the budget, but that would be a decision by the Board of Finance.”
The board decided not to create a contingency account but recommend that the Board of Finance do so.
Short Lane Improvements Cut
Thorne proposed cutting money for the Short Lane property improvements at Weed Beach Park. The lot was previously bought by the town. The proposed $450,000 was cut to $50,000 on the assumption that some “modest improvements”
“Short Lane is really expensive,” Thorne said. “I haven’t been sold on the plan for Short Lane.”
Sparkman said she agreed. “Again, these feel like luxury items in a time in which we should be conservative.” Money could be spent in future years to improve the property more, as money becomes more available, she said.
The parcel is being used on a limited basis, Buch said. “It is usable as is, just not to the best level,” she said. Sparkman pointed out that much of the parcel has been cleared and can be used now.
Stevenson agreed the appropriation could be deferred. Koons and Marks agreed. Unlike Highland Farms, where the entire property is difficult for town residents to use at all, people can now go to Weed Beach.
Marks suggested that some money be expended on the parcel.
Stevenson said: “I would want to make sure that we do have the ability to activate that land if, for example, somebody would want to use it for a picnic, rent it out and put up a tent, have an event there — you know, as a revenue generator. I do want to make sure that we ,are getting the land to a place where that could happen, or that Parks and Rec could put up tents there for, say, the Weed Beach Fest.”
A total of $50,000 was left in the budget for “modest maintenance improvements” to the Short Lane parcel at the park, as Stevenson put it.
Selectmen and Buch said they weren’t sure if that was the proper amount. It could be a “placeholder” until more was known, Koons said.
The vote was unanimous.
Highland Farm Improvements
Stevenson said she strongly supported the $600,000 for Highland Farm: “Put in the parking lots; get the path in, ADA compliant; get people out there using this beautiful piece of land.
“We spent a lot of money on it” to buy the property, she said. “I think it’s time to invest in getting the taxpayers out there, using it.”
Marks said that it would generate revenue from renting out the site for various community activities. Sparkman said she strongly agreed.
Koons said this funding should go through, even while the Short Lane proposal was severely cut back.
“You bought two properties,” he said. “One’s adjacent to beach [….] the land’s not going to go away, it’s just not going to be utilized as much as you’d like to have it utilized. You bought another piece of property, 16 acres. […] The uses there are going to be minimal until you actually put a pathway in and a few other things […] You’re talking about the ancillary to Weed Beach, so if you have to make a choice, do something with Highland.”
The vote to keep the money in the budget was unanimous.
Civilian Dispatchers, Police Redeployment
The three proposed civilian dispatchers would replace police officers who take on the evening shift. Three civilian dispatchers have already been hired after their jobs were added in previous town budgets. Police officers still dispatch on the shift that includes the wee hours of the night.
It would take the hiring of an additional three civilian dispatchers to cover that “overnight” shift, and that idea isn’t in the budget now being considered. “I’d really have to be sold on the wisdom of doing that,” Stevenson said.
“Civilianizing the dispatch does a number of things,” Stevenson said. Professionals trained for dispatching are likely to do a better job of it than police officers who, while likely to do an acceptable job of it, take the duty temporarily. Civilian dispatchers are also less expensive because they don’t need the other (expensive) training police officers get.
The discussion about civilian dispatchers comes at a time when the governor is proposing that towns consolidate dispatching to save money, Stevenson said. Moving to civilian dispatchers “more easily facilitates that change,” she said.
Stevenson said she supports having a police officer, once the dispatching function is civilianized, becoming a school resource officer at the Middle School, and “I strongly support” having a police officer be dedicated to solely doing work in narcotics investigations.
Sparkman said, “I think asking our taxpayers to take on the $332,000 and hiring three dispatchers at this time,” with uncertainty about what the state will mandate that towns pay for and with uncertainty about consolidation of dispatching services, “I just think is an expense that at this time seems like a luxury.”
Sparkman said she is “not sold on the idea of having an SRO at the middle school.”
Marks said that providing for public safety is one of the prime responsibilities of the board, that it was the recommendation of the police chief and Board of Education to redeploy officers into the two positions, and that it seems like a sensible thing to do.
Although the cost of hiring two police officers is actually less than three dispatchers, Buch said, the third dispatcher would also allow for two dispatchers to be present in the evening shift. Stevenson said that would mean more “consistency” in the way dispatching is done on that shift.
Thorne said he supports hiring more civilian dispatchers: “I believe the narcotics problem in Connecticut is a regional concern, and it would definitely help us to have another guy on it. […] He’s working a lot on it with detectives in surrounding towns. […]” Stevenson added that narcotics investigations rarely are confined to one municipality.
The SRO would help middle school kids with emotional challenges, Thorne said. Koons indicated he agreed with that.
“Well, I just hate to spend money,” Koons said. But he supports the redeployment and hiring civilian dispatchers. “I think this is probably an area where pubic safety overrules” more spending, he said.
Stevenson said she’s asked town officials to look into the specifics of regionalizing civilian dispatchers, including what money the town might lose in state grants if the town opts not to
With Sparkman providing the only “No” vote, the civilian dispatcher request was kept in the budget in a 4-1 vote.
Parklands Property Tax Assessment Reduction
Separate from the budget discussion and vote, selectmen also unanimously agreed to cut the tax assessment for the Parklands property — an office building with a retirement home building now under construction — by $513,000.
That brings the assessment down from $8,413,000 to $7,900,000.
The assessment change is effective with the Oct. 1, 2017 Grand List, so the business that owns Parklands would get a cut from last year’s tax bill.
Good News: Town Investments
Koons brought up a report from the town treasurer that although the town’s income from investments of various funds had been projected to be $300,000 in the current year’s budget, in the first six months of the budget year the income had already reached $267,000. He asked whether or not it would be a good idea to raise the revenue estimate to, perhaps $500,000.
“We’ve been discussing that internally,” Stevenson said. “I know that Jack [Davis] has made that recommendation, and Bert [von Steulpnagel, another RTM member] has done some calculations […] Typically, we leave those decisions up to the Board of Finance, when it comes to adjusting revenues.”
She suggested that she recommend that the Finance Board consider the matter after consulting with the town treasurer. Koons responded, “OK, fair enough.”