Troubling concerns — school security, gun control, mental health — seem destined to cast the shadow of the Newtown school shooting into Ridgefield’s coming year. They were a persistent undercurrent as First Selectman Rudy Marconi discussed the new year, and usually more mundane considerations of fiscal planning for the 2013-14 budget.
“A very interesting budget process,” Mr. Marconi said Wednesday.
“What is new is the need to assess all of our school buildings from a security perspective, in light of the tragic occurrence in Newtown.”
Mr. Marconi didn’t offer details on what kind of security enhancements might be proposed at town schools.
“Debbie Low, our superintendent of schools, is working on that right now,” he said. “At this point, all I can say is that people need to be aware that all efforts are being made, and Debbie is addressing the issue of the security of the schools in our community. And, if anything, we will be ahead of the curve relative to other communities in addressing any of the concerns people may have.”
It may take a while.
“I don’t think that the work that’s being done will be completed in time to be included in the budgetary process, although that’s a possibility,” Mr. Marconi said. “If it is not, we certainly need to be aware of this request that will be coming forward. And right now there is absolutely no dollar amount being discussed, because it is just way too early in the process.”
While gun control isn’t something done at the municipal level, Mr. Marconi said it is clearly becoming more an issue to townspeople.
“I do see it in terms of local people getting more involved on a state and national level, demanding tighter gun control, the ban of assault weapons, and the restriction of clips of ammunition that people are allowed to buy on the Internet,” he said.
Efforts to limit the easy availability of some weapons will likely be accompanied by a greater focus on people with serious mental problems — and increased efforts to keep weapons out of their hands.
Gun control should be approached “in conjunction with mental health and the HIPAA regulations, that are very restrictive for privacy purposes,” Mr. Marconi said.
“But in the situation of an individual being mentally deficient to the point of showing homicidal tendencies, this information should be kept confidential but at least shared with local police authorities, to assess the availability of guns to the individual,” he said.
“So we need a lot of change in the system, and how we approach gun control.”
Ridgefielders care, and will be involved.
“I know there is a group of people in Ridgefield right now who are working to coordinate an effort to march on Hartford on Feb. 14, asking for the reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons and a further limitation on the amount of clips/ammunition that individuals can purchase,” Mr. Marconi said.
“I have joined the group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, headed by Mayor Menino of Boston and Mayor Bloomberg of New York City.”
There could be symbolic action by the Board of Selectmen.
“I’ve gotten emails back on communications and requests for resolutions to be passed, showing how our town supports gun control,” Mr. Marconi said. “And I am not talking about stopping hunting or anything like that.
“But why anyone needs an AR-15 that can shoot 30-round clips or have armor-piercing bullets is beyond me.”
The new year — and budget deliberations that will soon begin — will also have some more familiar elements.
“The police station is going to show up again, for $5 million,” Mr. Marconi said.
A major expansion of the police station was proposed five years ago, but voted down in the budget referendum — and that was just before the economic crisis.
But police officials never really dropped the idea of a renovated station from their plans, and have been talking about bringing it back as a budget request ever since.
“I think it’s good that they keep it in the budget, to keep reminding the Board of Finance and the people of Ridgefield that they need a new facility,” Mr. Marconi said. “But I’m not sure the timing is right for that, at this particular time. …
“In the budget, the capital budget, we have the normal requests for trucks and loaders and fire trucks that we have every year. I didn’t see much changing, the major item being the road paving,” Mr. Marconi said.
The selectmen have hired an engineering firm, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin of Middletown, to study the town’s roads and provide a detailed report on the how their maintenance can best be managed over the long haul.
The town spends more than $1 million a year on road maintenance, but the selectmen worry that it isn’t enough, given the roughly 200 miles of roads in town and the rising cost of oil and asphalt. The selectmen commissioned the study partly in response to the finance board’s decision last spring to cut the road spending from $1.5 million to $1.2 million.
“The report isn’t done yet, but the company continues to be working on it,” Mr. Marconi said.
The operating budgets dominate discussion in the early part of the year. For the current fiscal year, 2012-13, voters at last May’s referendum approved $81 million for schools and $32 million for town departments.
Budgets had been rising 1% or 2% a year since the economy hit trouble in 2008, and this year Ridgefielders are actually paying 1% less in taxes than they did in 2011-12.
For the next fiscal year, 2013-14, which will begin in July, Mr. Marconi sees similar restraint in spending. But he fears some taxpayers may not feel the benefit of town officials’ effort, thanks to the revaluation. With the goal of rebalancing the tax burden, revaluation will send some people’s taxes up more, while others will pay relatively less — before the demands of any spending increase are factored in.
“For the 2013-14 fiscal year, at this point, I’d say that our position would be no different than in the previous four years, which is one of very conservative budgeting in an effort to minimize any increase,” Mr. Marconi said.
“What is complicating this issue even more is the ‘reval’ — and the lack of understanding of the revaluation process, and that it is totally separate and divorced from the budget process,” he said.
Revaluation notices were sent out by Assessor Al Garzi’s office in the last week or two. The average house value went down 18% — although different individual properties went up considerably more or less. How much taxpayers’ values fell — when compared to the 18% average decrease — will go a long way to determining whether their taxes go up a little more or a little less than whatever revenue increase town officials’ budget decisions require.
“I spoke to the Men’s Club today,” Mr. Marconi said Wednesday, “and there were several questions about that: ‘Mine only went down a little bit, how come?’ ‘Why did mine go down so much?’ ”
Property owners looking at revaluation numbers are pulled in two directions: If their house is worth relatively more, that means they should be able to do better when they sell it. But it also means they’ll pay more in taxes.
“Some people felt, It doesn’t matter to me that it went down so much; I’m not going anywhere, anyway.
“If you’re trying to sell your house, you hope it doesn’t go down in value. If you have no intention of selling your home and your value’s gone down greater than the 18%, some people feel that is good news,” Mr. Marconi said.
Mr. Marconi told Men’s Club members that revaluation and people’s changed assessment aren’t something the first selectman has much involvement with. They’re the business of the assessor, and the consulting company that is handling revaluation.
“I said, ‘You have to talk to Mr. Garzi about it.’ They said, ‘Oh, no. It’s your problem. Aren’t you the chief elected official?’
“OK,” he said. “It’s my fault.”