2017 preview: Town has plans, and a spending cap

Bridges, budgets, Branchville, Schlumberger leases, and Main Street plans — Ridgefield has quite a bit going on in 2017. It’s also the year the state-imposed 2.5% cap on municipal spending increases kicks in, affecting the 2017-18 budget town officials are already working on.

“To live within a 2.5% cap on expenses is going to be quite difficult,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

Asked to look ahead, he began with national and state affairs.

“A new president. A legislature that has to address a $1.5-billion deficit,” he said. “But more directly for our community, several things will hopefully move forward.

“Two bridges. Route 35, that everyone’s well aware of,” Marconi said, referring to the state bridge project that backs up traffic by the Fox Hill condominiums.

“Hopefully that will be completed in the next calendar year, only to be followed by a bridge project on Route 7, just north of the intersection of Route 102.”

The state’s also working on plans for Main Street.

“This involves drainage, catch basins, repavement, addressing some traffic moving issues, while still maintaining the aesthetics of our Main Street,” Marconi said.

“What was presented was a plan that preserves most of the trees — all trees worth preserving have been preserved,” he said. Trees that are dying “will be replaced,” he said.

“A downtown committee has been meeting several times, and is close to agreement on a final plan, which then will be moved on to engineers’ drawings which will be presented at public hearings for the general public to review and comment on.”

The public hearing is expected in 2017 — but no bulldozers.

“Probably, out to bid in 2018, construction in 2019 — if, if, if,” Marconi said. “The financial structure is 80% federal, 20% state of Connecticut. Hence the ‘if if if.’”

The selectmen have been negotiating to lease two buildings on the Schlumberger property, and Marconi expects a public hearing and town meeting soon.

“Hopefully in early 2017 we’ll see the approval of two leases — one for the Philip Johnson building, the other for the auditorium — that, although not generating a lot of revenue, will certainly allow those buildings to be renovated at no cost to the taxpayers,” he said.

Branchville’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) plan should be finished — to guide development unfolding over years, maybe decades.

Some work may begin soon.

“That plan will hopefully be completed in the first half of 2017, with what could possibly be an acceleration of the movement of the Portland Avenue bridge, south, to line up with Old Town Road,” Marconi said.

The relocated Portland Avenue “would become the formal entrance to the train station,” with the bridge across from Route 102 closed off, and that railroad crossing eliminated. The state Department of Transportation and Metro-North railroad are behind it.

“They want to do this as soon as possible, and have allocated funding from a special federal account that will cover 100% of the engineering and 80% of the cost of the project, with the town having to assume 20% of the final project costs,” Marconi said.

The project could run $2.5 to $3 million, putting the town’s 20% at $500,000 or $600,000 — probably financed with long-term borrowing.

“But more exciting is the overall eventual development of the Branchville area, providing for more housing and more business” over the coming years, Marconi said.

The Branchville plan will be presented to the public tonight, Thursday, Jan. 5, at 6 p.m. in the Ridgefield Library.

The 2017-18 fiscal year starts in July, but budget-making is winter work — made harder by a state-imposed 2.5% cap on municipal spending increases.

Of Ridgefield’s $139-million 2016-17 budget, $90 million is for schools and there’s $1.85 million for roadwork and $12 million for debt service.

The selectmen’s budget for town departments — fire, police, parks and recreation, administrative offices — is about $35 million, and the 2.5% Marconi will worry about is based on that.

“The 2.5% would yield approximately $900,000 in additional expenses,” he said.

Insurance increases could take $400,000, he said, and the fire department’s planned move to eight-man minimum shifts is $144,000.

The selectmen will have to fit the rest of the budget increase — rising costs, any raises, new programs — into what’s left.

“I’m assuming we’ll be making cuts,” Marconi said, “because I know there are going to be requests for additional people.”