Board of Finance public hearing: Budget cutters outnumber spenders

Spending skeptics outnumbered school supporters seven-to-two in public comments at Monday’s public hearing on the proposed $145.9-million 2018-19 town and school budget.
“My taxes are insane — $18,000, $17,000 a year,” said Rich Fasanelli of Gay Road. “What the town is forcing me to do is move. I think that’s wrong. It’s a house I built, a house I love. …
“You’re going to force me to sell my house. Who’s going to buy my house?” he added. “A family with three or four kids. …
“I shouldn’t have to sell my house,” he said, “… because you can’t control the budget on the Board of Education side.”
Hearing speakers worry about taxes and spending — not school quality — troubled Sarah Pettitt.
“I moved here for my children to have a strong education,” she said. “I feel disappointed that the town is not standing behind the children, and what they need.”
The March 26 hearing drew about 75 people to East Ridge Middle School’s auditorium, and lasted two hours.
After presentations by First Selectman Rudy Marconi, acting school Superintendent Robert Miller and Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer, 10 citizens spoke. Most comments focused on the education budget, with seven speakers worried about high taxes and too much spending, while two spoke in support of the school budget and against cuts. The 10th speaker questioned plans for a new parking lot off Governor Street.
School revision
One surprise was acting Superintendent Miller’s announcement that a $131,077 miscalculation had been discovered in the school budget. The school board had approved a $96,555,184 budget that represents a 4.23% increase, but that should be lowered to a revised school budget proposal of $96,424,106 — an increase of $3,790,562, or 4.09%.
The slight downward revision is one issue on the agenda of the school board’s planned meeting with the finance board tonight, Thursday, March 29, at 7:30 in town hall.
Miller said salaries and benefits for employees made up just over 80% of the $96-million requested school budget. (The schools’ 2018-19 budget document lists just under 722 positions for teachers, administrators, paraeducators, secretaries, nurses, custodians, and technology and operations staff.)
“The bulk of our budget is people,” Miller said.
After increases of $1.49 million for salaries and $1.04 million for benefits, the largest item in the $3.9-million total increase is $752,000 more for services to special education students.
“We’re legally and morally responsible to provide those services as agreed to by the parents and the school district,” Miller said.
Town, capital
Marconi outlined a $38,323,714 operating budget for town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, town hall administration — that increases spending 2.49%. That total allocates $1.8 million for roads and infrastructure work, including $75,000 for upgrading facilities to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
Marconi also outlined a $3,861,165 capital budget — larger projects and purchases to be financed with borrowing. Even with the proposed new capital spending, debt service would decline from about $11.5 million this year to $11 million in 2018-19, Marconi said, as the town continues paying off borrowing from the “school bundle” projects. Town debt, now over $60 million, is expected to whittle down below its pre-bundle $50-million level, before bumping up some in 2021-22, when borrowing for a major sewer plant renovation is expected.
“How do you pay for a $37-million project?” Marconi said. The town is studying how costs could be shared, but annual fees for sewer users will likely rise from about $430 to about $800 per unit.
Ulmer, the finance board chairman, offered some overview on the town’s finances. Unemployment, over 6% in 2009, is 3.7% today.
Foreclosures, which rose from seven in 2008 to 25 in 2014, were at 17 last year.
“This year, so far, only two,” Ulmer said.
The town’s median household income is $145,906 for 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available.
The town’s grand list of taxable property increased 0.82% this year — enough to support about $1 million in added spending.
“We have a slowly growing pie,” Ulmer said.
Spending increases beyond that, he said, will fall on the taxpayers.
OWLS view
Dr. John Fisher spoke for the OWLS, a 65-member senior citizens group.
“Members of our group are living on fixed incomes,” he said.
He had three requests: that taxes for people 75 and over be frozen from further increases; that the tax break for Ridgefielders 65 and older be increased from the current $1,048 to $1,200; and that the income ceiling to qualify for the town’s property tax deferment program be increased from $55,000 to $65,000.
Remaining competitive
John Locke of Danbury Road said, “I’m really concerned about the school budget in particular, about the salaries of administrators. … It’s really the teachers who are on the line day to day.”
Karin Fallon of Indian Cave Road said school enrollment, now 4,838, had been falling since 2005: “702 fewer students, twice the size of Veterans Park’s capacity,” she said, but no buildings had closed.
“Ridgefield is the last hitching post for those who commute south,” Fallon said. “Our mill rate must remain competitive.”
Ed Tyrrell said the school budget defeated efforts to analyze it.
“The Board of Education’s budget is impossible to understand and evaluate. It is 49 pages of edu-babble and lingo meant to confuse the taxpayers and voters. At that, it is completely successful,” Tyrrell said.
“Given the events of the last month, there is no reason anyone should trust this budget. It plays on the fears of the special education parents, and the fears of all the other school parents by telling you that more and more of your children come to the schools with mental health problems. You should be insulted. Your children do not have more problems than you had a generation ago. You are doing just as good a job raising your children as your parents did with you a generation ago.
“And if individual children have problems,” he added, “do you really trust the school system to solve them?”
Sarah Pettitt said her daughter was 6 months old when the family moved to Ridgefield, and as things turned out, she needs and gets a lot of support from the schools.
“Not only does her teacher support her, she had paras that help her,” Pettitt said. “There’s all different levels of support.”
Her son would soon be entering school, and there would be determinations of what kind of program and support is appropriate for him.
“I believe in the schools to do that,” she said.
Neighbors
Bob Payne of Spring Valley Road pointed to neighboring towns with more modest budget increases.
“Darien, Wilton, New Canaan …” he said. “How are they keeping their education budgets below 2.5%?
“We don’t need to be too creative, we just need to follow best practices,” he said.
“Now is the time to exercise courage and put a cap on school budget growth.”
Howard Schnidman of Armand Road compared school spending to enrollment, saying the number of students had fallen 68 this year and was projected to go down 72 next year, while the budgets were up $3.2 million this year with a request for almost $4 million more next year.
“Per-pupil spending is up 11.1% he said.
He raised a concern about the recent reassessment, which he said had slightly reduced taxes on his higher-end home.
“That means mid-to-lower value homes went up,” Schnidman said.
“I completely support the first speaker, from the OWLS,” said Stephanie Anderson. She was sure other school parents shared her sympathy for seniors.
“These people have lived a long time, they’ve paid their dues,” she said.
But, she added, “I’m concerned about potential cuts to our school budget.”
Neighboring towns managed lower school increases this year because of past support for schools, while Ridgefield has a history of reducations and tight budgets.
“They’ve invested more in their schools, where we’ve kept budget increases lower,” Anderson said.
“Keep in mind what attracts families to this town,” she told the finance board.
Parking spots?
Gina Kerry of East Ridge Road focused not on schools but on a proposed $570,000 63-car parking lot off Governor Street.
“My biggest concern is we’re going to spend a little less than $10,000 each for parking spots,” she said. “We have no paid parking in this town. Can’t we make it self-funding?”
She also urged expansion of the tax base.
“We need to start to develop commercial space,” she said, “so there’s more growth in town.”

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