$144-million budget: 1.8% tax increase heads to vote today

School, town and road repair budgets totaling over $144 million — and projected to require a 1.8% tax increase for 2018-19 — will come before voters for approval or rejection at the budget referendum today — Tuesday, May 15 — from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with all voting in Yanity gymnasium.

Voters will also decide six questions on $4.2 million worth of proposed capital spending — projects and purchases to be paid for with borrowing in the bond market, so they won’t affect taxes next year, though they will add to debt service in following years.

“No matter how you vote, please get out to vote,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi last Monday’s Annual Town Meeting — adding that voter participation in budget referendums runs in the 12% to 14% range.

“Our turnout for budgets is abysmal,” Marconi said.

But interest in town taxes and budgets may be on the rise, Marconi said Tuesday morning, with recent changes in federal income tax law limiting deductions for state and local taxes to $10,000 — a factor that may be holding down local property values.

“People are very upset,” Marconi said. “What’s the condition of my road? Does it need to be paved? What impact will that have on my property values? What about our schools? What about our taxes? What am I paying?”

The combined town, school and road budgets for 2018-19 are proposed at $144,360,000 (rounding to the nearest $1,000), up from the current year’s $141,548,000 — a 1.99% spending increase.

The finance board’s proposed budget holds the proposed tax rate increase to 1.8% by drawing $1,600,000 from the town’s roughly $14-million surplus fund balance and using it as non-tax revenue.

“We wanted to keep taxes under 2%,” finance board Chairman Dave Ulmer said after the board finished its budget work in April. “It’s a tough year.”

“Now that the budget has moved forward for the town to consider, the BOE encourages everyone to vote next Tuesday, May 15,” school board Chairwoman Frances Walton said. “The board approved this budget on April 23 and we believe that it will support our mission and vision of the graduate, and help us to achieve student growth in all our programs.”

The $95-million school budget being sent to voters represents a $2,366,000, or 2.55%, increase from the current school spending of $92.6 million.

Still, that’s $1,555,000 less than the school board’s initial request for a $96.5-million budget, which would have been a 4.23% increase.

At Monday night’s meeting, interim Superintendent Dr. Robert Miller said that 80% of the school budget was for salaries and benefits for staff — teachers, paraeducators, administrators, secretaries, and custodians.

“That’s the people in our district,” he said. “Our district is a human-centered operation.”

Miller displayed a chart showing per-pupil expenditures in the “DRG-A” towns the state compares Ridgefield to — costs per student in the other eight towns ranged from a high of $23,439 in Redding to a low of $19,727 in Darien. Ridgefield was lowest, at $17,653 per student.

At the meeting, voters rejected a series of motions attempting to reduce the school budget figure that would go to referendum Tuesday. (See related story.)

The school budget will be question two on Tuesday’s ballot.

Town spending

Voters will also be asked to judge a $47.5-million town budget — the referendum’s first question. Within that is $36.5 million for spending by town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, town hall administration, up 2.62% from this year. The $47.5-million total also includes $11,037,000 for town and school debt service, down 4.22%. (The town’s outstanding debt is about $61 million.)

Question three on the referendum is $1,840,000 for “roads, drainage and ADA infrastructure” — with the bulk of it going to roadwork and $75,000 set aside for projects under the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA. These two amounts are the same as the current year’s appropriation.

Road maintenance was an issue Monday night as Eric Scheck, vice president of the Twin Ridge Homeowners’ Association, complained that in the 18 years he has lived there the roads had been paved only once in Twin Ridge, a development with 127 homes paying taxes.

“We just want our roads paved,” Scheck said. “When are we going to get it solved?”

Marconi and Public Works Director Peter Hill said there are some 500 roads covering about 200 miles in town. The road and drainage appropriation — $1,765,000, after the $75,000 for ADA was taken out — rebuilds about 10 miles a year.

“We can’t do everything for everybody,” Marconi said.

Hill said all the roads in Twin Ridge except Rising Ridge Road were scheduled for repaving next year.

Rising Ridge is the longest road in Twin Ridge, Scheck said.

It’s also more of a project.

“There’s some major drainage we need to get done,” Hill said.

“I don’t get the fundamental problem, why more can’t get done,” Schneck said.

“It’s money,” Marconi replied.

Capital questions

While the $144-million town, school and roads budgets in the referendum’s first three questions represent operating expenses paid for from next year’s taxes, referendum questions four through eight propose $4.2 million in capital spending financed with long-term bonds.

At Monday’s annual meeting, Marconi said debt service is declining — $11,037,000 in the coming 2018-19 budget, compared to $11,523,000 for the current year.

The town’s total outstanding debt is $60.7 million this year, he said, and is projected to be down to about $58.4 million by 2022.

Among the capital spending proposals, two — $1.3 million in Venus building renovations and a $570,000 parking lot — got most of the discussion at the meeting.

Marconi explained the town’s Venus Building plan, which involves spending $1.3 million to renovate the lower level of former RVNA space so the Board of Education central offices can move there, allowing the Ridgefield Playhouse to expand — using its own money — into the area currently occupied by the school offices.

Chefs’ Warehouse is also expected to expand — at its own expense — into the second floor area above the new school offices.

Combined additional rental income of $130,000 a year from Chefs’ Warehouse and $60,000 from the Playhouse would cover the repayment on the $1.3 million in borrowing for the renovation project.

“We will have enough additional rent to cover the cost of repayment and put some money in the bank,” Marconi said.

Marconi said the selectmen regard the Playhouse, with its shows, as an “economic driver” for the restaurant-heavy economy in the village.

“This is nothing more than a grant of $1,350,000 to the Playhouse,” said veteran spending skeptic Ed Tyrell. “The Board of Education moves into space that should be rented to the private sector, forever removing it from the rent rolls. … The Playhouse moves into the Board of Education space, gets a rent rebate, and then pays us rent at a rate that never has us break even on the $1.3-milion bonding.”

He noted that the Chefs’ Warehouse expansion and added rent income was expected regardless of whether the school offices moved.

“The Playhouse is wonderful, but not wonderful enough for us to give a $1.3-million grant,” Tyrell said.

Parking lot

Question five is $570,000 for a 63-space parking lot — a northward expansion of the current parking lot off Governor Street, between the RVNA and the Boys & Girls Club.

“That lot will be used for employees on the east side of Main Street,” Marconi told the annual Town Meeting, freeing up spots workers’ cars now take.

John Devine of the Economic and Community Development Committee supported the plan.

“The current lot is full to capacity during the week,” he said.

“This is not a ‘field of dreams,’” said Devine. “We will build it, and there will be incentive to come.”

Jessica Wilmot, a Parking Authority member and village businesswoman, said employee parking had become problematic. Tenants from around the village have given out too many employee parking permits. The largest lot on the west side of Main Street, the CVS lot, has 120 employee permits out — some from east side businesses — with a total of 160 spaces in the lot. East side parking lots — the town lot off Bailey Avenue and the lower Governor Street lot — are filled as well.

“I urge you to approve expansion of Governor Street,” Wilmot said. “It’ll free up Bailey Avenue and customers will come.”

Tyrell objected again.

“The parking lot is a bad idea. There is no written plan as to how it will be used,” he said.

If a parking plan and regulations are worked out, the lot “might be a good idea next year,” Tyrell said, “but only if the Main Street retailers and landlords, who are the only beneficiaries of such a parking lot, pay half the costs.”

Budget critic Jan Rifkinson was also skeptical of the lot because there was no plan agreed upon for getting employees to park there rather than nearer the stores.

“By the time we build this lot, there’ll be a plan in place,” Marconi said.

Security, trucks

Question six on the referendum is $508,000 for four expenditures: roof replacement on the Emergency Operations Center and preschool area at Yanity gym ($120,000); roof replacement on the skydome building at the former Schlumberger property ($125,000), enabling its use for storage; $113,000 for a study for improvements to the village storm drainage system, which is getting overwhelmed in heavy rains with increasing frequency; and sidewalk improvements ($150,000) with a possibility of some reimbursement from the state.

Question seven is $886,301 to purchase two major vehicles, a pumper-tanker for the fire department ($690,000) and a Mack dump truck for the highway department ($196,301).

Question eight is $949,388 for five proposed school capital expenditures, including an oil tank replacement at Scotland Elementary School ($100,750); asbestos abatement at Scotland; replacement of the building systems automation at Scotts Ridge Middle School ($97,538); district-wide technology and facilities safety upgrades ($475,700); and replacement of a cooling tower at RIdgefield High School ($153,500).

Absentee ballots for the referendum are available in town hall today, Friday and Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday morning from 9 to noon.