Selectmen eye police, school security

“We’ll target 2% or under?” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

With shaking heads and mumbled assents, the other selectmen agreed.

Ridgefield’s tax rate increase was projected at 3.35% for next year as the Board of Selectmen began a four-nights march through first-round budget work last week.

At the end of their review last Thursday, the selectmen agreed that Mr. Marconi and town Controller Kevin Redmond should seek ways to reduce that projected tax increase from 3.35% to 2% or less by the board’s next budget meetings in March.

The 3.35% projection was based on numerous assumptions, most significantly that the finance board would choose to pull $2 million from the town’s $11.5-million surplus fund balance and use it as non-tax revenue. But the selectmen made clear that they understood such revenue decisions were the prerogative of the Board of Finance.

So the selectmen will try to get to 2% largely by reducing spending.

Overall spending was proposed to rise 2.78%, from a little under $127 million in the current 2012-13 fiscal year to a little over $130 million next year, 2013-14. That $130 million included:

• $84 million in school spending proposed by Superintendent Deborah Low, a 3.24% increase.

• $33 million by town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation — for a 3.04% increase.

• $13 million in debt service, falling just slightly.

Holding down the “head count” of town employees appeared to be a priority for the selectmen.

The board listened politely as police Chief John Roche argued that hiring two new patrolmen, at cost of $127,000, would not be adding new employees but refilling positions that had been frozen vacant for several years, leaving the department operating at 40 officers when it had previously been 42.

“The volume coming into the Police Department does dictate that we need to unfreeze these positions,” Chief Roche said.  “I’m not asking for more. I’m talking about going back to 42.”

But the selectmen noted that the police budget would be up about $200,000, from $4.8 to $5 million  — an increase of 4.66%.

“That 4.66% is being driven by the two people,” Mr. Marconi said.

The board questioned the number of police supervisors.

“Almost 40% of your personnel seems to be in a supervisory role,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said to the chief. “You almost have a one to one-and-a-half ratio of supervisors to patrolmen. It seems to me there’s an imbalance.”

“We’ve looked at that again and again and compared it to other agencies in the area,” the chief said. “We’re not top-heavy.”

In the Ridgefield department, sergeants and lieutenants often go out in cruisers, functioning as part of the patrol shift they are supervising.

“They do supervise, but our supervisors are workers out in the field,” Chief Roche said.

“Up to what rank?” Selectman Andy Bodner asked.

“Lieutenant,” Chief Roche replied.

Mr. Marconi noted that the Police Department’s request to restore two patrolmen came at the same time the Board of Education was looking at a budget that included about $515,000 in school security measures — including the addition of two police who would work as “school resource officers,” based mostly in the middle schools.

In an interview Monday he clarified the point.

“Right now I do not see us hiring four new officers. In fact, it may be difficult to hire two. The Board of Selectmen has told other departments that we are not hiring any new people at this time. The only people being hired currently are a result of current retirements or resignations.”

Mr. Marconi also wondered if the entire $515,000 package of school security  proposals put forward by Ms. Low might not be held out of the annual budget, and treated as a separate appropriation.

That would allow time for the plan to modified after town officials see what comes out of the state as a result of the governor’s task force and the legislative committees that are studying gun laws, mental health, and school security.

“Security, although unfortunately a necessity in our schools, is an area that I see taking several months to reach agreement on,” he said.

“And that agreement would be items like the student resource officer in the two middle schools, it would involve capital expenditures such as, I think, locks for doors and camera systems for points of entry.

“All of these options are impacted by what the governor’s task force recommends, as well as what the legislature’s task force might recommend,” Mr. Marconi said.

“Currently we have no indication that there may or may not be mandates associated with the governor’s recommendations. And until we know the answer to this question, I feel it would be premature to continue adding items to a budget, not knowing whether those might be a mandate and if in fact there could be funding made available for the mandates.

“Now if there are no mandates and each community makes its own decisions, so be it. We move forward, which means we will continue to meet as our own local committee through the office of the superintendent of schools, with a conclusion hopefully by April 19.”

Other board members agreed that school security needs require careful review.

“I have a real problem,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said. “Are we going to have a guard at every public gathering? You’re talking about, basically, changing a whole way of life.

“More needs to go to mental health,” she said. “There needs to be more control over who gets a gun. Maybe there needs to be more control over what type of guns people can get.”

Mr. Bodner thought that if school resource officers were going to be hired, they should be in the education budget so school officials would have to judge them as a priority, weigh them against other expenses.

Security was an area where there might be no end to spending.

“The more you spend, the safer you’ll be,” he said. “You’ve got to decide your priorities. You don’t want to make a school a fortress.”

The revenue assumption underlying the selectmen’s discussion — that $2 million will be taken from the fund balance and used to support spending — is something Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer discussed at last fall’s tri-board meeting.

“We in no way are suggesting anything other than what has been discussed in multiple meetings, and that is the use of $2 million from fund balance,” Mr. Marconi said this week.

“Rudy and I discussed using the $2 million as a placeholder, but the actual amount for FY14 will be up to the BOF [Board of Finance],” Mr. Ulmer said in an email. “The use of $2 M would reduce any FY14 tax increase by 1.8 percentage points.”

This suggests that without the use of money from the fund balance, the spending proposals before the selectmen as they began their budget review last week would require about a 5.15% tax increase — the 3.35% in the selectmen’s projection, plus another 1.8% for the $2 million.

Capital budget

The selectmen are also looking over a $5.6-million proposed capital budget — with requests for more than $2 million from the Highway Department and $1 million from the Board of Education leading the way.

The capital budget is mostly larger construction projects and equipment purchases that are deemed appropriate to be paid for by borrowing in the bond market. If bonded, the spending would not directly affect next year’s tax rate, but would show up in later years’ debt service.

Again, the urge is to cut.

“Do we want to get under $4 million?” Mr. Marconi asked the other selectmen.

Yes, but how? By cutting the $392,000 for a “simulcast radio upgrade” that would improve the Police Department’s communication in radio dead spots around town? Or the $565,000 to replace a nine-year-old fire truck that’s been responding to 1,800 calls a year? Or Public Services Director Peter Hill’s request for $1.5 million in road repaving? How about $150,000 for the first phase of a $300,000 two-year upgrade of “surveillance and security” equipment in the schools?

All the spending plans will be revisited by the selectmen in March and presented to the Board of Finance, along with the Board of Education’s school budget request.

The finance board will then package the spending requests — possibly cut them some — and put them together with a plan that cobbles together enough taxes and other revenue to pay for the proposed spending.

And that will go before voters in a May referendum.

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