Selectman David Bayne, a Democrat, read part of the following prepared statement at Monday night's meeting of the Board of Selectmen, just before the board for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The budget figures were slightly changed from Bayne's statement, written before the meeting: A reduction of $50,000 was made from capital expenditures for fire department radios, so the budget increased by 6.4 percent.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson also read from a prepared statement about the budget. Stevenson said she too would email her statement to Darien Patch. [Update: her statement .]
I am reluctantly supporting this year's Selectmen's budget. Our budget is growing from $38.8 million in this current fiscal year to $41.3 million in the next fiscal year. That is an increase in Darien’s non-education spending of approximately $2.5 million and represents approximately a 6.5% increase over last year’s town budget.
About $1.3 million, or a bit more than 3.3% of the increase, is due to debt service about which there is little we can do. The remaining $1.25 million represents capital spending and increased operating expenses to deliver town services that residents have come to expect.
, which would have meant a whopping 9.1% increase in town spending this year. Although that number was reduced slightly as a result of changes in pension assumptions, I believed that a budget increase in the 8.5% to 9% range in town spending was unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that the school budget, which is twice as large as our budget, is being proposed to increase by 5.5%.
In scouring the budget in the last few weeks, the Board of Selectmen was able to agree upon sufficient cuts to bring the overall percentage increase in the Town budget down to 6.5%. Unfortunately, the majority of these cuts come from capital expenditures, most of which are merely being deferred, or kicked down the road, to future years. Operational cuts are the only long-term solution to sustainable budget cuts because they will not reappear in future years. However, we were not able to find many of them in this year’s budget.
The reason for that is that the Town’s budget, after accounting for inflation, has been substantially reduced in the years following the 2008 fiscal crisis. To cut services further would lead to fundamental changes in the services offered by the Town and essentially the relationship between the Town and its citizens. To make these kinds of changes will require a realignment of expectations of both the Darien’s citizens and the Town’s staff.
On the other hand, to maintain the status quo, which is what this budget represents in my opinion, is to perpetuate property tax increases well above the levels to which we have become accustomed over the last decade.
Last year we saw a 4% mill rate increase. This year, with an increase in the Town budget of 6.5% and a proposed increase on the Board of Education budget of about 5%, it seems inevitable that property taxes will again be rising at least 4% to 5% depending on the actions of the Board of Finance and the RTM.
So, I think that the question that this year’s budget raises for me is what do Darien’s taxpayers expect from their Town government and where do they reasonably expect property taxes to go in the coming years?
Next year’s budget will present similar challenges to those we are facing this year. Next year, there will be another million dollar increase in scheduled debt service and most likely a retroactive pay and benefits package in connection with expired union contracts that are currently being negotiated. The six-year capital plan we are approving tonight calls for town capital spending to increase from $1.9 million to more that $4 million next year. In the years after that, we will be facing further pent up demand for deferred capital projects and a fire department vehicle-replacement schedule that becomes mind-bogglingly expensive starting in FY '16.
In short, Darien faces many challenges in the years ahead, and I think it is incumbent up the Board of Selectmen to begin engaging the town in a dialogue about taxpayer expectations and the costs of municipal services.
So, while I will vote to approve this budget, I do so reluctantly. I know that there are many in Darien who are continuing to struggle with the cost of living here. Many of them are the most vulnerable among us for whom property tax increases of 4% to 5% a year over multiple years is a real hardship. It is these people that I worry about most when we approve a budget increase of this magnitude.
In a perfect world, I would have liked to have approached this year's budget in a different manner. But hindsight is always 20-20, and is not always productive. Rather than engage in it, I would like to ask the to engage the Board of Selectmen in a discussion of taxpayer and town department expectations before next year's budget process begins so that we may provide the department heads with clear direction in the fall as to where we expect the Town's budget to go in the next fiscal year.
In the meantime, I will grudgingly support this year's budget because I see no palatable alternative to it. However, I encourage my colleagues on the Board of Finance and the RTM to scrutinize this budget carefully and look for additional cuts that perhaps we have missed.
Editor's note: See also: