Wearing green, white and purple sashes that represent the strength, purity and justice of the women’s suffrage movement, members from the League of Women Voters of Ridgefield celebrated the 135th birthday of suffragette Alice Paul Tuesday morning at the Keeler Tavern Museum while ushering in the town’s yearlong commemoration of the 100th anniversary of 19th Amendment’s ratification.

“Alice learned from England’s suffrage movement and implemented lessons from that movement into her work here in America and that’s why our banner is equal parts green, white, and purple and why we wear these sashes today,” said Marilyn Carroll, president of League of Women Voters of Ridgefield.

A longtime Ridgefield resident, Paul helped secure passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote in August 1920. In 1923, Paul authored the Equal Rights Amendment, which has yet to be adopted.

“Getting the vote [for the 19th Amendment] was a great victory but she never stopped her pursuit of fighting injustice here and around the world,” Carroll said. “ ... She proved one person can make a difference and her legacy lives on in all of us.”

In addition to Tuesday’s annual Alice Paul Day ceremony, the League will co-sponsor “Votes for Women” events in Ridgefield throughout the year that include panel discussions, author talks and book readings, concerts and theater performances, marches, and exhibits. The Ridgefield Library, the Ridgefield Historical Society, the Drum Hill Chapter of the DAR, and the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center will serve as co-sponsors of the 19th Amendment series.

“You’ll be seeing us wear these yellow rose lapel pins at events throughout the year, and you’re welcome to donate and wear one, too” Carroll explained of League members. “These were worn 100 years ago to show pro-19th Amendment support ... they’re an important symbol of the suffrage movement in America.”

State of the Town

First Selectman Rudy Marconi was the featured speaker at Alice Paul Day, reviewing the town’s finances and capital projects and answering questions from the crowd of about 75 residents.

“Our surplus for the 2018-2019 fiscal year came in at $2.8 million as you may have read,” Marconi said. “... The Board of Finance may use it to increase our fund balance and increase from the 8 to 9% they’ve kept it between for years and bring it up to more than 10%.”

Marconi joked that he had received multiple letters from residents who wanted the money returned to them.

“Of course, everybody wants to know what we’re going to do with all this money,” he said.

One area that might get a boost in spending during the 2020-21 fiscal year — thanks to the surplus — is the budget to maintain town roads which averages about $1.8 million.

“The highway department has requested $2.6 million and they might want more,” Marconi explained. “And that’s because our roads are not as good as they need to be. It’s a big issue and we’re going to look at how we can address it.”

Marconi said the Board of Selectmen would look at bumping the road maintenance budget to a permanent $2.2 million annual — a $400,000 increase from the allotted $1.8 million.

“Do we move the number up a permanent basis so that it’s above $2 million every year or is this just a one-time occurrence due to the state of the roads currently? As you can imagine a million dollar increase does a lot to the bottom line.”

Marconi also boasted progress in paying off the town’s debt service.

“We’ve been aggressive getting it down from $130 to $140 million to around $62 million, which is where it is now,” he said. “That helps with planning our future and we expect to fully pay off the borrowing we did on the bundle by 2023, which was our goal. We’re on target to meet that, and it’s important we continue to decrease our debt.”

Dying trees

Six months into the 2019-20 fiscal year, Marconi said Ridgefield finances are “on schedule” with revenues and expenses coming in as expected.

There was one area he didn’t plan for during last year’s budget: the emerald ash borer.

“These beetles are eating our ash trees,” Marconi said. “We’ve spent $95,000 already on taking down trees around town, and there’s no end in sight.”

The first selectman explained that the priority is to take down the infested trees that are near public safety access areas.

“We’ve taken down a tremendous amount of these trees, and there are still so many we have to take down,” he said. “During the colder, winter months, we decided to cut back to doing the cutting on an emergency basis but what I’ve found we’re still taking down plenty despite the call for reduction. There’s just an incredible need there for safety reasons, and we expect that to continue into this spring and probably even longer.”

Health insurance

Besides roads and dead ash trees, Marconi feared that health insurance costs would create higher budget requests — both on the town side and the school side — for the 2020-21 fiscal year than in previous years.

“It’s always the unknown,” he told the room. “We can’t forecast health issues.”

Marconi said that there had been a 12% increase in health insurance premiums projected.

“The Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which I am a member of, has scheduled meetings with Danbury Hospital and is looking to partner with them,” Marconi said. “We have to do it to help reduce our costs. ... We have to start thinking outside of the box with this issue because if the increases keep coming in like this, then it will impact more than just the 2020-2021 budget.”

The health insurance dilemma already has forced Ridgefield Public Schools to request a 4.11% budget increase for the 2020-21 school year (see story on A1).

“That’s a pretty big increase — larger than we’ve had in recent years,” said Marconi, who attended the Jan. 13 Board of Education meeting where the school budget was presented by Interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote.

“I’ve always said that education is the engine for our local economy,” the first selectman said. “We have to invest in our schools because that is what it will take to protect the largest investment our taxpayers have, which is their homes and the equity of their homes.”

Marconi emphasized for residents to attend Board of Education public hearings for this year’s budget.

“That’s what the League of Women Voters is all about: local democracy,” he said. “We need you to vote ... Our last budget referendum was 12%. We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars — this is something that impacts everybody and we want our residents to be educated about it.”

The town has yet to present its budget request for the 2020-21 fiscal year yet but Marconi projected around a 4.5% increase in spending — on top of the 4.11% request from the schools.

“2.5% is the goal but it’s going to be real, real tough this year,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do. We’re hopeful that some of those figures will come down but it’s a very good thing we have that $2.8 million surplus to potentially hold things down. Of course, that’s a decision ultimately left to the Board of Finance but it will have an impact on the budget and where we end up coming in.”

Main Street, Branchville

Marconi touched on a variety of capital projects that ranged from the Depot Road and Portland Avenue bridge repairs in Branchville to the Main Street realignment project to updating the town’s police and fire departments.

“There’s going to be disruption on Main Street,” Marconi said. “But if we say no to the state’s money, then we’ll have to wait 30 to 35 years to get this fixed.”

Marconi estimated that construction on Main Street and Prospect Street — near the CVS intersection — would begin in 2022.

“There’s a lot of traffic downtown, we all experience it,” Marconi said. “But this realignment has been a longtime coming and I think this project marks progress in the right direction, and we don’t want to stop progress while it’s in the works.”

One resident was worried that the Branchville bridge projects and the Main Street roadwork — both scheduled to take place around the same time — would create too much traffic around town.

She asked the first selectman if he anticipated a change in the timing of the plans — or if the bridge work would negatively affect the downtown shopping area.

“The Portland Avenue bridge only sees 140 cars a day so I don’t see much of an impact to the downtown from that,” he said. “As for the 2022 schedule for realignment on Main Street, we opted for the later date after the 2021 holiday shopping season so there’s no negative impact to shop owners at the end of 2021.”

He said the bridge work was receiving federal and state money, and that it would come with new crosswalks in the Branchville area.

“It’s all about creating connectivity and pedestrian movement down there,” Marconi said. “We’re not going to get another BI [Boehringer Ingelheim] to come into town so we have to start looking at ways we can attract people here and grow our grand list in different ways.”