Voters to decide 1.92% tax hike Tuesday

A $141.5-million town and school spending plan, with a 1.92% tax increase, will be judged by voters in a daylong referendum Tuesday, May 9.

“How you vote is your personal decision,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Tuesday. “My ask is that you do vote, please.”

The voting will be from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and residents of all districts will vote at Yanity gym off Prospect Street, behind the Venus Municipal Building.

Voters will be able to vote Yes or No on separate questions concerning $92.6 million in school spending, $47.1 million in town spending, and $1.84 million in road and infrastructure improvements — all of which make up the roughly $141.5-million 2017-18 operating budget behind the proposed tax rate.

Voters will also consider close to $3.9 million in capital spending on construction projects and equipment purchases that would be paid for by borrowing in the bond market — so they shouldn’t push up next year’s taxes but would add to debt service in future years. Major capital spending proposals include renovating the town’s fuel depot, repairing water-damaged walls in the Recreation Center, a new phone system for the schools, and an ambulance for the fire department.

Another $1.3 million in projects and purchases under $100,000 was approved by voters at Monday night’s Annual Town Meeting. 

All town voters — more than 18,000 people — may take part in the budget referendum, and ballots may also be cast by people who aren’t town voters but are 18 or older, U.S. citizens, and pay taxes to the town on real estate or a car worth more than $1,000.

Absentee ballots will be available at the town clerk’s office in town hall from 8:30 to 4:30 weekdays, through Monday, May 8.

And on Saturday, May 6, Town Clerk Barbara Serfilippi will have special absentee voting hours from 9 to 12 in town hall.

The tax and spending proposal put forward by the Board of Finance represents a $2,535,000 increase from the current budget of $139,013,000, to $141,548,000.

That’s a 1.82% increase over this year’s spending, slightly less than the 1.92% tax rate increase proposed. That’s because the finance board reduced — from $1,950,000 this year to $1,800,000 next year — the amount of money it will pull out of the town’s roughly $14-million surplus fund balance for use as non-tax revenue in the budget.

“We do like to keep taxes under a 2% increase every year — that’s kind of in line with inflation,” Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer said Monday.

The finance board’s general guideline is to keep the fund balance at about 8% to 9% of revenue. With the proposed use of $1.8 million as revenue in the 2017-18 budget — balanced by an expected surplus of about $1.5 million from the current year — the fund balance should be about $13.4 million, or 9.7%, at the June-July turn of the fiscal year, Ulmer said.

Town budget

The town budget listed in Question 1 is $47,075,000. That total includes $35,552,000 in spending by town departments — police, fire, highway, parks and recreation, town administration — and also $11,523,000 in debt service. The finance board cut the budget by $60,000. The more than $35 million in town departments’ spending is a 2.45% increase, and debt service is decreasing 4.46% from the current year’s $12,060,000.

The only substantial addition in the town’s operating budget, Marconi said, was adding about $150,000 to move to a full year of eight-man minimum shifts at the fire department that started in January. With the eight-man minimum, both fire trucks and both ambulances on duty would have two firefighters assigned to them every shift.

“It helps improve response time and the efficiency of operations,” Marconi said.

Road maintenance and infrastructure spending in Question 3 totals $1,840,000. That total is down 1.87% from last year’s $1,8750,000. The bulk of it would be for “various town road and infrastructure improvements” — mostly road repaving. It also includes $75,000 specifically designated for projects to improve town compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

It’s one step in an initiative expected to extend over many years, bringing town facilities up to ADA standards.

“This year we’ll be paving around the high school,” Marconi said, creating paths for wheelchairs to get to various outdoor facilities.

School budget

School spending would increase from $90,374,000 to $92,634,000 — an increase of $2,535,000, or 2.5%. The school board had initially sought a 3.48% spending increase, but the finance board cut the request by $884,000, yielding the 2.5% increase being presented to voters. The school board made cuts to accommodate the finance board reduction at its April 24 meeting.

The proposed Board of Education budget will appear as Question 2 on the referendum ballot.

School Superintendent Karen Baldwin said Monday night that the school board had worked to hold down the budget. They’d looked at closing one of the six elementary schools, with the consultants Milone & MacBroom studying it.

“Do we have the space to do that? The answer, by Milone & MacBroom: We don’t — at this point,” Baldwin said.

While Ridgefield has lower per-pupil spending than most schools in its district reference group, Baldwin said, its educational results are still good.

“Ridgefield does very well,” she said. “Ridgefield High School is No. 4 in the state, and one of the top 300 in the country.”

And based on state criteria, “our six elementary schools are all ’schools of distinction,’” Baldwin said.

“I commend the budget to you.”

Capital questions

Following the first three questions on the town, school and roads operating budgets, voters will be asked to decide four questions on various capital spending proposals.

Question 4 is $900,000 for infrastructure improvements in the Branchville area, and Marconi has said the work would be undertaken only if a state grant the town has applied for comes through and would cover the cost.

“Branchville represents economic growth for us,” Marconi said. “We have the train station there, bus service.”

Question 5 is for just under $989,000, including $400,000 for the state-mandated replacement of 30-year-old tanks at the town’s fuel depot. Also included in the question are three pieces of equipment: $235,000 for a new ambulance, $183,000 for one of the big Mack dump trucks used for plowing, and $171,000 for a John Deere loader.

The town keeps three ambulances — two in daily service, and the oldest as a backup.

Marconi said the town has 17 of the big trucks it uses to get the roads plowed, and replaces one a year.

The fuel depot’s problems have prompted criticism — but still have to be addressed, Marconi said.

“We’ve gotten some angry calls. There’s no spillage, no leakage.”

Question 6 is $950,000 for major repairs at the Recreation Center, where water penetration from leaks inside the walls has done a lot of damage.

“We had leaking pipes overhead for years and years, and were not aware of it,” Marconi said.

Question 7 is $1,035,000 for the school system projects, the largest being $550,000 for the replacement of the telephone system throughout the schools, where phones are reported to be down about 20% of the time. From July 2015 to December 2016, school officials counted 50 phone outages totaling 125 hours of downtime — it’s a problem they describe as a safety issue for students, as well as an annoyance for staff.

“They’ve had tremendous issues with phones being out,” Marconi said. “It’s something that needs to be done.”

There would also be $379,000 in “energy conservation measures” at several schools, including LED lighting and “variable frequency drives” on hot water pumps. The projects, the final ones in a three-year initiative, are expected to bring back $250,000 in incentive savings under a letter of agreement with Eversource.

Also included is $106,000 for the school sidewalks and curbing — repairs in the high school’s courtyard.