The tensions that had been simmering throughout this year’s budget season boiled over at Monday night’s Representative Town Meeting with accusations of partisanship and dysfunction among boards.

You can listen to the audio of the meeting here via Channel 79’s Vimeo channel.

After three and a half hours, the RTM set a 2020-21 budget of $147,544,069, and a mill rate of 16.33, down from last year’s rate of 16.47. Approximately $300,000 of capital expenses were cut from the town side.

This was a further reduced mill rate from the proposed budget approved by the Board of Finance of $147,862,069 for town and education combined, with a reduction in the mill rate of 16.36. Read about that meeting here.

A mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment. To calculate the property tax, multiply the assessment of the property by the mill rate and divide by 1,000. For example, a property with an assessed value of $50,000 located in a municipality with a mill rate of 20 mills would have a property tax bill of $1,000 per year.

The RTM can only cut from the budget, it cannot add to it, and it only has line item control over the town side, not the Board of Education side.

Background

The budget process this year has taken many twists and turns. Both budgets passed fairly smoothly before the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. In-person meetings were no longer an option, and the economic impact of businesses closing and layoffs meant both the process and the budgets had to be revisited.

Initially, there was a debate on whether the RTM would cede budget-making authority to the Board of Finance due to a state executive order, which was eventually settled by the governor’s clarification.

The Board of Finance then requested both the town side and the Board of Ed cut their budget proposals (in the case of the Board of Ed, its budget increase), to either maintain a flat mill rate or a flat tax levy. The town side came in below the requested range, but the Board of Finance made some additional deferments. The Board of Ed came back with $557,000 left to cut after budget adjustments on the schools’ side. Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley made an impassioned plea that the additional cuts would impact school operations. Ultimately, the Board of Finance voted to approve the additional cut and asked the Board of Ed to revisit the entire budget to make it work, pledging to provide funding if a critical need arises.

The discussion

The additional reductions were achieved by proposed cuts to the town side of the budget, in the capital side. At Monday night’s meeting, Finance and Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis told the RTM the cuts — to areas like relining the town’s tennis courts and maintenance equipment — were to things that could be deferred. F and B also cut funding in reserve accounts the committee said hadn’t been used.

“We looked at things that were ‘nice to have’ versus ‘need to have,’” he said.

Several RTM members took issue with both the cuts and the timing of their presentation, including Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky.

“With regard to the reserve funds, we can take a close look over the summer at those. There are a lot of complexities to them,” he said.

He added there shouldn’t be a cleaning out of those funds without consultation and doing it in a careful way.

RTM member and former Board of Ed Chairman John Boulton said he had enormous respect for how the Board of Finance had approached the original process and said he found the proposed cuts by F and B “disturbing.”

“I’m troubled by the way F and B is approaching this,” he said.

RTM and Parks & Rec Committee member Cheryl Russell said she also thought the Board of Finance had done a great job and that “F and B is stepping over bounds.”

“I don’t believe this has happened for many years, coming to us in the 11th hour with cuts to the capital budget. I will be voting no,” she said.

Peter Orphanos, a member of the F and B Committee, said the committee viewed the items it was cutting as deferments that can be pushed to next year, and would not affect the operating budget.

Former Board of Ed member and RTM Parks & Rec Committee Chairman Adele Conniff said “F and B is overstepping their bounds. F and B is out of line.”

In particular, Conniff took issue with the cuts to the Parks & Recreation budget, saying it was only a “sliver of the pie,” and that Parks & Rec brings in over $400,000 in revenue. She said cutting the funding for kitchen work “leaves us in a bind” to find a food vendor.

“I’m hoping fellow RTM members vote no,” she said.

RTM and F and B Committee Stacey Tié said it was within the purview of her committee to research the budget and provide recommendations to the vote. She said the items that the F and B recommended, such as the kitchen, tennis court lines and a leaf blower, given cutting them proposed no safety issue, can be deferred.

Boulton said that despite the fact that he and Russell have battled in the past, “I am 100 percent behind her on this. I urge everyone to vote no.”

Other RTM members said given the use of outdoors as the town and country continues to battle a pandemic, it is more important than ever for the town to maintain public parks.

Zagrodzky said the town side has already come up with some “pretty big cuts. They went through and discussed careful changes.”

He also pointed out that maintaining the tennis courts is maintaining the assets of the town.

“We don’t want to compromise those,” he said.

Zagrodzky also pointed out that making “nickel and dime” cuts don’t really have any impact on the mill rate and are “unwise.”

RTM member Carolina McGoey, also a member of the Darien High School Parents Association, said she heard what Zagrodzky was saying, but added, given the cuts on the Board of Ed budget, “On the other side, this is a tough budget year. We all have to make sacrifices. To hear this about tennis lines is quite shocking to me.”

RTM member Frank Adelman said he felt the criticisms that the Board of Finance’s budget work was being “run roughshod over” was a double standard, given the way he said the Board of Ed was treated in terms of the budget process and that its “hard work” was run roughshod over.

Orphanos added that F and B was coming from a perspective that all cuts and deferments should come from the capital side first before touching operating budgets.

Conniff said it was a bad idea to pit the town budget verses the Board of Ed budget.

Davis said it was unfair to say that F and B doesn’t have the right to review the budget and make recommendations to the full RTM.

“In that case, we are nothing more than a rubber stamp on it,” he said.

Ultimately, the cut of just over $300,000 in capital expenses passed.

“In March, the Board of Selectmen unanimously proposed a thoughtful, constrained 2020-2021 budget with a set of well-vetted priorities. Then COVID-19 hit,” First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said.

“The full measure of financial impacts from income and job loss brought about by the pandemic response is still unquantifiable. As town leaders, we cannot be tone deaf to these challenges,” she said.

Stevenson said the final steps of this year’s budget process and the additional F and B’s cuts to the BOS budget, “while certainly within their purview, lacked the transparency and collaboration many of us have worked hard to foster over the past 10 years.”

“The silver lining is that the outcome is a win for taxpayers…a further reduction in our mill rate giving homeowners and businesses a bit of relief during these uncertain times,” she said.

Board of Ed and the caucus

Education Committee Chairman Clara Sartori gave her committee’s comments on the budget, saying “at a time when priority should be given to crafting a strategy for reopening the schools under Covid-19 regulations, the Board of Education and administration have the difficult task of choosing the ‘least bad’ options for modification while maintaining educational standards for students in this time of uncertainly.

“Committee members were adamant that modifications to the budget should not involve academic programs that benefit students. Extracurricular activities which are integral to student development should be maintained whenever possible,” she said.

Sartori said the committee agreed that the economic consequences of the pandemic, coupled with the increases in the education budget over the past several years, call for restraint.

“However, the Committee questioned what appear to be extreme measures imposed to bring about a flat tax levy. According to one analysis, the expected cuts may result in long-term consequences for the school district, while saving a household approximately $200-$300 in the short term,” she said.

During the budget discussion, RTM Education Committee member Theresa Vogt raised the issue of a recent caucus held by five Republican members of the Board of Education to discuss how to achieve the further budget cuts.

This meeting was discussed at a recent meeting of the Education Committee. At that meeting, one of the Republican members who participated in the caucus, Jill McCammon, said the meeting was legal as it was a caucus. She also provided backup to both Education Committee Chairman Clara Sartori and The Darien Times.

In response to why there was a need for a private meeting, she said that its purpose was to organize information with the goal of not making cuts that would substantially impact education.

“Since no board member wants deep education cuts to the budget, the board decided to be in caucus in order to organize the conversation to focus more on the kinds of cuts that would not impact education — so we can hopefully meet the conditions of the cut in a way that impacts education least,” she said.

Sartori, who formerly served as secretary of the Board of Ed, asked why the meeting was along party lines and why the Board of Ed’s budget committee didn’t have the discussion.

“I did actually ask if the budget committee could do it and I was told it was not in the charge of the finance committee,” McCammon said, adding that’s why they chose to use the caucus format.

Vogt criticized both Zagrodzky and the GOP members who held the caucus, saying there’s “No room for partisan behavior.”

Boulton interrupted the comments by addressing Seth Morton, RTM moderator, calling “a point of order.”

According to Robert’s Rules of Order, a point of order may be raised if the rules appear to have been broken. This may interrupt a speaker during debate, or anything else if the breach of the rules warrants it. The point is resolved before business continues.

Boulton called the point of order for two reasons — one that the comment was political, and the RTM is nonpartisan, and two, that the comment was not related to the budget vote.

According to RTM rules, the RTM is a nonpartisan body. Political party affiliation is irrelevant to RTM member duties and activities as a member of the RTM. Read more here.

“This is inappropriate,” Boulton said.

Morton agreed.

Russell said in the 31 years she has served on the RTM, she’s often been the one “no” vote on the budget, and she intended to vote no again. Russell said the Board of Finance had done its due diligence given the impact of the coronavirus and said she was upset about the cuts mentioned on the school side. Russell suggested maybe cuts could come “from the top” or certain areas of maintenance could be shared.

RTM member and former Board of Ed member Jan Raymond said she was concerned with the cuts being made to the Board of Ed budget and what she called the lack of communication and apparent dysfunction between the Board of Finance and Board of Ed.

Several RTM members said they disputed Boulton calling the point of order and Theresa Vogt’s statement being cut off.

“To interrupt Theresa is not a good look at all,” said member Janet Grogan.

Another member, Beth Lane, said Vogt was talking about the budget process and said it was “completely germane” to the discussion.

RTM member and Democratic Town Committee Chairman said cutting Vogt off was a “chilling message to RTM members” and said all members have the privilege to speak.

The Board of Ed budget passed with four members voting against it: Russell, Jay Hardison, Joan Davis, and Terry Duffy.

The Board of Ed meets Tuesday night to further discuss the budget reductions, as well as what the fall school opening could look like. Go here to see how to watch the meeting and read th full agenda.