Annual Town Meeting: Budget talk, some votes expected Monday night

Talk of budgets, taxes and the state of the town, along with voting on close to $1 million worth of projects and purchases, will greet Ridgefielders who attend the Annual Town Meeting Monday, May 7, starting at 7:30 p.m. in East Ridge Middle School’s auditorium this year — not the Playhouse, as in recent years.

The $95-million school budget and $47.5-million budget for town departments will be discussed at the meeting, but voting to approve or reject them will be at a town-wide referendum, which the selectmen plan for Tuesday, May 15, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with all voting at Yanity gymnasium.

“With a 1.8% increase in the mill rate, hopefully the budgets will pass,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “We have consistently stayed below the rate of inflation for quite a few years now, and that has been our goal for the people of Ridgefield, seniors and all ages.”

Monday night’s annual meeting will be asked to confirm the date, hours and place of voting in the annual budget referendum.

The Annual Town Meeting may also consider motions made to adjust “line item” dollar amounts in the budgets that go to referendum, something that has sparked debate and differing charter interpretations in recent years, with a ruling last year from the town attorney.

“The Annual Town Meeting has the power to reduce or delete any line item, but cannot increase or add a new line item,” Marconi said. “That is the power, the authority granted to the Town Meeting by the charter.”

There was disagreement at last year’s meeting over what qualifies as a “line item,” and Marconi sought an opinion from Town Counsel David Grogins then, and has continued to seek clarity on the question.

“The Charter Revision Commission has been asked to look at it,” he said. “For this year, we have to go by counsel’s ruling.”

In addition to the town and school operating budgets for 2018-19, the referendum will have six questions on major capital projects and purchases — including road repairs, a new village parking lot, and a new pumper-tanker for the fire department.

But the Annual Town Meeting on Monday is expected to vote up or down on 31 smaller capital projects and purchases — under $100,000 each — that total over $947,000. The capital items are proposed by 11 departments — including the library — and are likely to be considered department by department.

Nuts and bolts

“It’s basically the nuts and bolts of the town — lawnmowers to plows to pickup trucks,” Marconi said of the $947,000 list. “Window replacements. A license plate reader for the police department. A used car for the fire department. Information technology, server replacements. A plan of conservation and development. Tree replacements.”

The most expensive of the capital items on the list is resurfacing of the pool area in the Recreation Center.

“The pool surfacing area is a major project, it’s $98,000,” Marconi said. “It’s been postponed but it’s at a point now, as the surface’s protective layer of the concrete begins to erode, then the concrete below that surface begins to deteriorate. It becomes a much more expensive repair job when it comes to be done — and we don’t want to let it get to that point.”

Next most costly among items to be voted on Monday is “firefighter protective gear” at $88,470.

“The big item for the fire department is protective gear, their turnout gear,” Marconi said. “Those sets, one set, I believe, is over $10,000, and they’re supposed to be replaced at a minimum every 10 years, and we’ve got a lot of them.”

It’s part of a plan to replace some outfits each year.

“We have 36, plus all the volunteers,” Marconi said of the town’s firefighters. “So this has been an ongoing program. It’ll be there for a while.”

Presentations, powers

The annual meeting will hear presentations from the first selectman, finance board Chairman Dave Ulmer, and a representative of the school system — most likely acting Superintendent Dr. Robert Miller.

There will also be a new moderator.

“Joe Walsh will be moderating this year,” Marconi said, noting that Sharon Dornfeld, who has served as moderator in recent years, has a conflict.

Questions about what power voters at the annual meeting have to change operating budgets — the school budget and the town budget — have sparked controversy the last couple of years.

The relevant charter section — 10-1 (c) — reads:

“The annual capital and operating budgets of the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen as recommended by the Board of Finance shall be brought to the Annual Town and Budget Meeting for discussion and then sent to referendum. The meeting shall have the power to decrease or delete any line item, but it may not increase or add to any line item or establish any additional line item. Approval of the budget shall be by machine voting at a referendum …”

Two years ago, a motion to reduce the school budget from $90,374,299 to “$85 million even” was made by John Early and voted on — but lost.

The May 5, 2016, Press reported: “Town meeting moderator Sharon Dornfeld said his motion was in order — he could decrease but not increase any line item in the finance board’s budget.”

Last year, Early tried again to reduce the school budget, offering a motion that it be reduced from the $92,633,544 the finance board put forward to the same number as that year’s budget — $90,374,299 million.

“But Dornfeld ruled the amendment out of order, based on First Selectman Marconi’s testimony that the town attorney had said the town charter allows the meeting to reduce the budget only through motions addressing specific line items,” the May 4, 2017, Press reported.

After protests from budget critics, Dornfeld allowed the meeting to decide whether her ruling was appropriate.

“The vote was 57 ‘aye’ in support of the moderator’s decision — that an amendment to reduce the school budget was out of order — and 17 ‘nay’ against it,” The Press reported.

A May 3, 2017, opinion letter to Marconi from Town Attorney Grogins reads:

“You have requested my interpretation of a provision of the Town Charter of Ridgefield (‘Charter’), specifically, section 10-1, subsection (c). In that regard, you have asked the meaning of the language contained in the last sentence of the first paragraph of subsection (c) which reads as follows: ‘… The meeting (Town Meeting) shall have the power to decrease or delete any line item, but it may not increase or add to any line item or establish any additional line item.’

“After reviewing the Charter as a whole, I am of the opinion that the term ‘line item’ refers to a specific category of expenditure as set forth in the detailed budget as prepared by either the Town or the Board of Education, and subsequently approved by the Board of Finance. It does not in my opinion refer to the total budget expenditures of either the Town or Board of Education which are expressed as a sum at the end of those respective budgets.”

Marconi said this week he expects the annual meeting will follow Grogins’ opinion.

Marconi encouraged people to turn out.

“Show up at the meeting. Be sure your budget passes,” he said.

“Town meetings require participation, regardless of how you may feel about a given issue,” Marconi said. “But if you don’t participate, beware.”