RTM approves slight mill rate increase, postpones Highland Farm appropriation

At Monday night’s Representative Town Meeting Public Hearing, all 2019-2020 budget resolutions for the town of Darien passed by an outstanding margin, with the exception of the improvements to Highland Farm.

In a phone conversation, RTM Finance & Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis told The Darien Times that the amount needed to be raised by taxes was up only 1.17% this year, and the total amount requested on the approved budget was up by only 1.24%.

“It is only because the Grand List is down by 1.36% that the mill rate is going up by 2.4%,” Davis added. “If our Grand List had stayed the same, our increase in our mill rate would have been 1.17% this year.”

“That’s pretty outstanding,” he added.

The mill rate was set at 16.47, a 2.43-percent increase unanimously.

The total operating budget for the town and the Board of Education was $147,859,097, and voted by a voice vote. There were 81 in favor and none against. There were about 80 RTM members who voted that evening.

The $609,000 appropriation for improvements at Highland Farm have been postponed until the RTM June 10 meeting. These improvements include two parking areas, a walking path, and a comfort station.

Diane Conologue, vice chairman of the RTM Parks and Recreation Committee, said committee members had some questions regarding Highland Farm that they wished to discussed further. These included: Why this committee is secondary on reporting this item when the property is not under the Park and Recreation Commission, it’s under the Board of Selectmen; What is meant by the term state and federal grants in the resolution; the size of the shed and its placement, placement of the port-o-potties and screening; and pavement verses gravel.

Emily McDermott, who is a member of the RTM Parks and Recreation Committee, said while the committee is not at all opposed to the Highland Farm property being used for the town, not all of the information on this topic was made available to committee members until “maybe within the last week or less.”

“It was an expensive piece of property to buy,” she added. “We just think there are some legitimate questions.”

Davis did not agree with the postponement. “I don’t understand the rationale for the postponement,” he said. “It’s not going to change anything.”

He added that there have been “ample discussions at the P&Z Public Hearing on this. They have discussed the parking. They have discussed the shed. I’m against postponing it. We are going to gain nothing by it.”

In response, he received many expressions of disapproval from the audience.

Joanne Hennessy, RTM Planning, Zoning, and Housing Chairman, agreed with Davis. She said when the topic of Highland Farms initially came up at the RTM, “it was talked about, it was debated, and it was unanimously approved.”

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who went up to the podium and spoke, said the Parks and Recreation commission “has been fully engaged in the detailing of this project.”

While the questions posed by Conologue were subsequently answered by Davis, as well as Stevenson and Town Administrator Kate Buch, Conologue still requested postponing voting on this item.

Members of the RTM spoke up and said the RTM shouldn’t be getting into the substance of the resolution at this time.

After continued debate on this matter, a vote was taken. With 44 in favor, 34 against and two abstentions, the RTM voted to postpone the item to the June RTM meeting.

SRO, dedicated narcotics officer

The Board of Selectmen’s budget included the hiring of a SRO (school resource officer) at Middlesex Middle School and a dedicated narcotics officer for the Town of Darien, which are facilitated by the approved budget request of three civilian dispatchers.

In his phone conversation with The Darien Times, Davis referred to the recent Darien Times article written by editor Susan Shultz, called “A Little Bit of Mercy…” — A Darien family’s loss to addiction, which is online and on page 1 of the May 16 issue. He stressed how the roles of an SRO and a dedicated narcotics officer can save lives.

“This will allow people to get help sooner. The narcotics officer will work with other police narcotic squads,” Davis said. “The purpose of the narcotics officer isn’t that we are making arrests, it helps users get the help they need.”

sfox@darientimes.com