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Tierney: Tax rate rising too fast, budget reform will stop it

Each year since the Campbell-Stevenson-Nielsen team took the reins of town government, Darien’s mill rate increased nearly 4%. Based on the Board of Finance’s latest five-year financial forecast, that number could reach a scorching 6% next year. I am certain most of my fellow tax payers in town would agree that this rate of growth is unacceptable, if our town is to remain a low-tax, business-friendly, attractive place to live and raise a family.

Darien residents must find it surprising that this pace of growth would occur with both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education under self-professed, small-government Republican control; more galling at a time when so many Darien families have seen their incomes crunched by the lingering effects of the recession. Ironically, Democrat Evonne Klein’s last three budgets saw growth of less than 1%, as she wisely put the brakes on discretionary projects in response to the financial crisis. Inexplicably, after several years of restraint, the Republican Board of Selectmen chose to open the floodgates, permitting spending to leap more than 7% in 2012-13 and 3.7% in 2013-14.

The Tierney-(Kip) Hall team opposes such large increases in Board of Selectmen spending. Here’s why. We view budgeting holistically, as both the budgets of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education together determine our taxes. Because everyone is well aware of the persistent pressures from the growth of non-discretionary items (employee contracts, health benefits, special education and litigation) in the Board of Education budget, we do not believe it made sense to go ahead with projects that would add to Board of Selectmen expenses. Now, given our fears that Board of Education spending could soar to nearly double-digit growth in 2013-14, it has never been more urgent to slam the brakes on Board of Selectmen spending.

We see the problem as one of process. Anybody who has ever sat through a lengthy budget session has to be impressed with the seriousness with which our elected officials take their responsibilities. Through many late-night meetings, I have watched members of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education labor to scrutinize and negotiate diligently over frustratingly small line items, few of which make much impact on the final figure. Often, the volume and lack of transparency of the data leaves them uncertain of the actual content of the many thousands of items in the budget. This opaqueness reduces their ability to cut costs wisely. Town administrators are better positioned to understand the imperative of line items and how to reduce costs without gutting services. Unfortunately, they are forced to advocate for the bottoms-up spending they have proposed. This process is fraught with conflict and does not work.

The Tierney-Hall team has a prescription for process reform that can help fix the problem — top down budgeting. It works like this:

• Before the beginning of the budget season, members of the Board of Selectmen, Board of Education, along with the Board of Finance, would confer on how to achieve a mill rate growth closer to a more tolerable 2-3%.

• At these pre-budget season meetings, elected officials would take the following actions:

- exchange indications of projected growth by department;

- identify pressure points;

- determine priorities;

- and assess possible areas for cuts in discretionary spending needed to make the target.

• Elected officials would then direct town administrators to create budget plans that comply with these targets.

With these reforms, the elected officials would be acting more like a board of directors, giving marching orders to administrators to achieve the boards’ goals, not the other way around.

 

Reilly Tierney is a Democratic candidate for the Board of Selectmen.

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