Four vacancies — for a police officer, an aquatics coordinator, a highway department foreman and the assistant fire chief — will be left unfilled indefinitely under a hiring freeze the town has adopted to prepare for expected shortfalls in revenue from ongoing state budget problems.
How much savings the hiring freeze generates for the town will depend on how long it goes on, and whether more vacancies are added to the four now being left open.
“If those positions remain vacant, and it goes to the end of the year, it’ll be about $327,000,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
The town is also planning to reduce paving work by about $200,000, lowering the total planned from about $1.5 million to $1.3 million in paving — part of $1,840,000 budgeted for “roads, drainage, and ADA infrastructure” in 2017-18.
The state’s budget situation is unsettled — and pretty dire — so town officials are preparing for the possibility that that Ridgefield basically won’t get any financial help from the state in the new fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.
State political leaders in Hartford are trying to come up with budget plans, but nothing seems solid enough to bank on.
So, the town’s hiring freeze and paving cutback are proactive steps — that require adjustments by the departments losing people who won’t be replaced.
“It’s difficult, but we are doing the best we can,” said Recreation Director Robin Matthews.
The Parks and Recreation Department is operating two swimming pools — at the Recreation Center, and the Barlow Mountain pool — and Martin Park beach on Great Pond with one of three aquatics coordinator positions left empty.
The aquatics coordinators duties range from management of other staff to lifeguarding duties to giving swimming lessons.
“Everything’s staffed, and well-staffed, and we’re doing the best we can through the freeze,” Matthews said.
“Our staff is well-trained, our substitutes have come in and they’re well-trained, and our water safety instructors have come to our aide in that situation,” she said
“We have been able to manage fully scheduled. We understand that it’s temporary,” Matthew said. “Everyone is still getting lessons, and getting good care, and safe.”
“We’ve had some impressive staff rise to the occasion.”
The aquatics coordinator vacancy dates back only to June, as does the police officer vacancy.
The police department has 42 positions — 40 sworn officers in the union, including three captains, five lieutenants and five sergeants, plus the chief and the major, which are non-union positions.
“Operationally, the vacancy means that we have one less officer to deploy and include when scheduling,” said Capt. Jeff Kreitz, the department’s public information officer. “If need be, overtime coverage may be necessary.”
Town Human Resource Director Laurie Fernandez said that in the near future, the department has more officers than usual on patrol.
“In summer, there’s no school resource officers, so there’s three more available for patrol officer duties,” she said.
Fernandez said that the the town will proceed with steps such as testing that are necessary for the eventual hiring of another police officer.
“We anticipated running a test. We wouldn’t delay testing — it takes a while to get through the testing process,” she said.
“They’d already started the process for police before the freeze was initiated, so the process will continue,” Fernandez said. “And what they’ll do instead of hiring someone is establish a list of candidates to choose from when the time comes.”
Like the police, the fire department has people on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with people working in shifts.
The department currently has 36 firefighters, including chief and fire marshal. An assistant chief’s position has been vacant since December, when Chief Jerry Myers was elevated from assistant chief to acting chief while the selectmen negotiated the departure of former Chief Kevin Tappe.
The department has four captains, who act as shift commanders, and four lieutenants.
The future of the assistant chief’s position was something Myers and the Fire Commission — which is the Board of Selectmen — had been discussing before the hiring freeze came up.
“We were kind of looking at the fire department command structure and trying to decide what works best for us, whether it’s having an assistant chief, or sharing those responsibilities with some existing employees,” Myers said.
The Highway Department is a little smaller, with Public Works Director Peter Hill overseeing 16 driver-laborers, four mechanics and three foremen.
At the end of September, one of the three foreman is expected to retire, reducing the department’s total staffing from 24 to 23.
“This is a key person I’m going to be losing,” Hill said.
“It isn’t going to be an easy task. We’re pretty busy here and to lose a key person like that, it’s going to be pretty tough on us.”
Ridgefield is a little less vulnerable than some other towns to the state budget uncertainties, since it hasn’t been receiving that much state money, anyway.
The 2017-18 budget approved by voters in May projected the town would receive some $1.3 million in “intergovernmental” revenue. Based on the Gov. Malloy’s June 26 budget “guidance” this would be down to about $957,000 — a decrease of about $353,000 — but town officials are worried it could be more.
An analysis by town Controller Kevin Redmond projects state revenue decrease as about $589,000 by anticipating an additional $236,000 decrease in state money for winter road care.
Whatever the final figures, it looks like a safe bet Ridgefield share of state money will be going down.
“I just don’t hear anything positive coming out of the state,” Marconi said Monday, July 17.
“It is still uncertain,” State Sen. Toni Boucher said in a July 18 email.
Boucher, a Republican whose 26th District includes Ridgefield and six other towns, said the Republicans are trying to save some funds for suburban towns like Ridgefield.
“Our proposals help to keep Ridgefield even,” she said. “The Democratic side has sales tax increase that does not even have support from their side. And both sides do not want the governor’s budget.
“All deadlines have passed,” Boucher added. “Now it may be July 31 as another target date for a budget but that depends on ongoing negotiations.”
One of the changes from last year to this year is that Ridgefield received $604,000 in education cost sharing in 2016-17. As a relatively wealthy town with successful schools, Ridgefield’s share of state education money is widely expected to be reduced to zero in 2017-18.
“On education funding, I can tell you that as it stands — with the governor allocating funds by executive order – Ridgefield’s aid will be zeroed out and likely all town aid as well,” said Rick Joslyn, press secretary with the Connecticut House Republican Office.
A proposal from the governor earlier this year that stirred up considerable opposition among municipal officials across the state was one that would have required towns and cities cover a third of the teachers pension costs that the state current finances. The cost to Ridgefield was projected at about $4.4 million a year.
Marconi has said he would go to court to fight the proposal, and has been organizing to get other towns to join a possible lawsuit.
But he said Monday that State Rep. John Frey told him the idea, which got lots of opposition and little support, might die on its own.
“I did hear from John Frey, who was in my office last week, that to his knowledge at the current time, there’s nothing in either the Democratic budget or the Republican budget that calls for a sharing of the teacher pension,” Marconi said. “But we’ll see on that one — I still remain very concerned on that one issue. That could have devastating impact on every municipality — of course, Ridgefield being one.
“That’s all in negotiation,” Marconi said. “Who knows?”