Darien Board of Finance approves 3% tax rate increase

Darien Board of Finance Jon Zagrodzky presided over his last budget vote on Tuesday. Zagrodzky announced he would not be running again in December at his state of the town address.

Darien Board of Finance Jon Zagrodzky presided over his last budget vote on Tuesday. Zagrodzky announced he would not be running again in December at his state of the town address.

Darien TV79 / Contributed

DARIEN — The Board of Finance has approved a mill rate increase of 3.12 percent for the next fiscal year to 16.84 after keeping it flat this year to alleviate pandemic impact.

It was the last budget vote to be presided over by finance board Chairman Jon Zagrodzky, who announced he would not be seeking re-election in December at his state of the town address to the Representative Town Meeting. Zagrodzky has been on the board for 15 years and served as chairman for six.

The finance board approved a total operating budget of $106.6 million for the Board of Education and $46.1 million on the town side.

A mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment. To calculate the property tax, residents multiply the assessment of the property by the mill rate and divide by 1,000.

Last year, the Board of Finance voted to approve a total budget of $147,862,069 for the town and education combined, with a reduction in the tax rate from 16.47 to 16.33 and a flat tax levy of $138,000,000 for fiscal year 2020-21. Because of the reduction last year, the two-year mill rate average increased to 2.25 percent, or 1.12 percent per year.

The school budget approved by the BOE in February did not include possible COVID-19 expenses, though some members objected. Former Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman, for the first time in her board tenure, opted to vote down Darien’s school budget, saying she believed the board had a statutory responsibility to include COVID-19 expenses.

The debate surrounded the decision to not include just over $800,000 of possible COVID-19-related expenses for the start of the next school year. Those included five full-time positions for extra sections for social distancing purposes, additional nurses for elementary schools, personal protection equipment, a contract tracing nursing stipend, additional lunch monitors to supervise social distancing practices on all grade levels, and more.

The debate also included a comparison of what other neighboring districts were doing. Out of those 20 districts, which included Weston, Westport, Wilton, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford and others, only New Canaan said yes to COVID expenses.

Several town expenses were also up for discussion, including $75,000 for work on the Edgerton property, which housed the former senior center since demolished. Board vice-chairman Jim Palen pointed out that the expenses was simply to get the property to a safe and usable space, versus create some kind of project or additional landscaping.

Another expense was the safety monitor for Parks & Rec. Palen said the monitor was effective last season during COVID-19, managing beach attendees and making sure social distance and safety protocols were being handled.

The process for this year’s budget was smoother than last year’s, with delays and many more meetings and discussions in an effort to keep the tax levy flat. Darien still maintains one of the lowest mill rates in Fairfield County. By comparison, for the fiscal year 2020-21, Fairfield was at 26.79, New Canaan’s was 18.16, Newtown’s was 34.76, Brookfield was at 29.65, Danbury was at 27.60, Stamford’s was 26.35, Weston was at 32.37, Wilton was 27.46, and Westport was 16.71, compared to Darien at 16.33 in the same time period. Greenwich was at 11.59.

The budget next goes to the Representative Town Meeting in May for final approval.