Darien’s dollars: Three boards, two budgets and lots of tough decisions
Several board meetings were held Tuesday to address cuts to the town’s and Board of Education’s proposed 2020-21 town budget, which are $47,875,998 and $103,521,534, respectively.
The Board of Finance recommended to the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education to discuss modifications in their originally proposed budgets to get to two different scenarios: A flat mill rate increase and a flat total dollar tax levy.
Board of Selectmen
The Board of Selectmen was able to reach its target of a total tax dollar levy at its special meeting on Thursday, April 30.
In a unanimous motion, the board approved a proposed budget reduction of $680,000 that was presented to the Board of Finance.
The Board of Finance met on Thursday, May 7, to discuss the Board of Selectmen reductions. In addition to the proposed reductions, the Board of Finance also deferred $310,000 for civilian dispatchers to next year. This includes salary, overtime, benefits and social security to bring on three dispatchers.
The purpose of the civilian dispatchers is to replace police officers doing the dispatch work so that they can do police work out in the field. The Board of Finance said it would not impair the town to defer this expenditure for a year.
On Monday, the Board of Selectmen met to discuss the addition modifications to the town side of the budget. During the meeting, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said that the changes to the town budget brought it down further than what had been requested in cuts by the Board of Finance. She additionally said the selectmen and the Board of Finance had received an email request from Darien Police Chief Don Anderson and Police Commissioner Kim Huffard asking for the civilian dispatchers to be reinstated.
Stevenson said she would support asking the Board of Finance to reinstate the $310,000 for the dispatchers given it still kept the town side of the budget’s number on target to keep the mill rate flat.
“I think it is bad policy to go forward with hiring three new people. I’d go further and say any open positions should be frozen and not filled,” Martin said.
Selectman Christa McNamara said she was disappointed when she heard the Board of Finance defer the civilian dispatchers.
“This is a project that’s been going on for ten years,” she said.
Selectman Kip Koons said he would hate to see it deferred again this year.
“Public safety is the most important thing we do,” he said.
Stevenson said she was looking for a bit of equity here in terms of cuts and how much of the budget reduction was put on the Board of Selectmen side.
The selectmen voted 3-2 to approve asking for the civilian dispatchers to be reconsidered on Thursday when the Board of Finance takes its final vote.
Board of Finance
On Tuesday night, the Board of Finance discussed the Board of Education’s budget reductions.
Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky opened the meeting by addressing a letter from the Council of Darien School Parents that was a “call to action” for district parents.
Zagrodzky called the letter needlessly inflammatory, reiterating "no one had suggested the kind of damage" to the Darien schools it implied.
Board members discussed the reductions already put forward by the Board of Ed, including approximately $223,000 in capital expenditures and $468,101 by revisiting line items on the operating side.
Board of Finance member Taylor Carter addressed the letter written by the CDSP and pointed out that she has four children in the school system, so “rest assured, I have an interest in protecting it.”
Carter said the board was discussing “reductions to an increase in a budget that was submitted before the coronavirus was ever an issue, and therefore likely has spending initiatives in it that either won’t be relevant or may be candidates for deferral in the face of the coming storm.”
“To the parents who took the time to write, many of whom are friends — I’m sorry you were so misled and unnecessarily alarmed. No one is suggesting we are unwilling to spend more on education next year,” she said.
The Board of Finance discussed whether to keep the Board of Ed cuts as presented or to add to them to achieve the flat tax levy or mill rate. One aspect of the discussion is whether the Board of Ed would get to offset their increase by keeping the money left over from the current years’ budget, approximately $900,000, in a “non-lapsing” account.
Zagrodzky said it would set a bad precedent by allowing the account to stay on the Board of Ed books versus being returned to the town’s general fund. He added that should the Board of Ed need that additional money, it could always come back with a request that would go through the necessary approvals.
The board discussed how much, if any, it should ask the Board of Ed to additionally cut. While some members supported nearly an additional $1 million, the finance board ultimately voted to ask the Board of Education to further reduce its budget increase request by $557,000.
Zagrodzky ended the meeting by saying that he hoped to make it through the process by having “everyone modestly mad at me but hopefully not furious.”
He also said he wanted to make two things clear — the first is, even after reducing budgets, he would always consider an urgent funding request and immediately convene the Board of Finance on that issue and direct it to the RTM to pass if necessary.
Zagrodzky's second comment urged residents to not be dismissive of Darien neighbors who might be struggling right now — even if some parents are willing to pay higher taxes for schools, as town officials and residents need to consider the reality of the tough economic burdens faced by many.
Following the meeting, there was some discussion on social media about the Board of Finance meeting.
Board of Finance member Jim Palen commented to clarify.
“The 557k of additional reductions, which will bring the total BOE operating budget increase to 2.4mm over last year’s approved budget (also 3.3mm over the current year’s estimated budget), was arrived such that after incorporating the much higher BOS reductions, would maintain a flat tax levy of 138mm,” he wrote.
Board of Education
Schools Superintendent Alan Addley told the board at its meeting Tuesday night he felt the additional cuts would impact students’ programming and staffing.
“These are decisions I don’t want to make, to be honest with you,” Addley said.
“To get down to that, this is what I’d be recommending, administratively — we will be touching the area, up and down the system, of intramurals and students’ interns that work in the school. They provide a level of stability in substitute teaching, and sometimes it prevents us pulling math and English specialists,” he added.
Also affected, according to Addley, could be Darien High School’s talented and gifted program. The library at the middle school could be changed as to the number of librarians, freshman sports or another aspect of sports, and if the number went higher, it could impact third grade strings.
“When you say you aren’t going to impact programs, this is the list we’ve been working on and refiguring for a long time, and I’ve not been wanting to discuss. But in fairness to the board, I have to give you what’s on the table. Board members might not agree, but those are the items we need to get down to those numbers,” Addley said.
Ochman said she understood the goal of lessening the tax burden and that’s part of why the board presented the non-lapsing account as part of that effort.
“Those dollars were taxed for education. I do think statutorially the Board of Finance has to agree to that so that is off the table for the moment,” Ochman said.
Ochman said Addley and the administration had put forward a good faith effort and the Board of Finance wants to “go about this a different way.”
“I know Alan has struggled. Having not seen this list before, I now understand why they struggled to put it forward. They do get the community concerned,” she said.
“I appreciate the idea of a partnership, but this is what happens when we don’t have a dialogue. I would be remiss if I said that wasn’t a disappointment to me as an individual and as a board chair,” Ochman said.
Board Vice Chairman David Dineen said he thought all the comments were valid, and said he appreciated the list from Addley as “that’s what we’ve been wanting to hear. Where this goes next.”
Dineen said he thought it would be a good idea to go back to the Board of Finance and create a working group before the Thursday vote.
“If they feel that this $557,000 is not going to be impacting programs, and we do, that is the starting point of the conversation. That is what has to be part of the conversation,” he said.
Board member Deb Ritchie said they didn’t know if it was appropriate to discuss any specific dollar amount. She said the fact that the Board of Finance was working off what appeared to be a list was a “big disconnect.”
Board member Dennis Maroney said he thought the board needed to come up with a more formal “plan of attack” as to what the areas the board and administration were looking to cull.
“I don’t think we need to get into specifics, but the RTM should understand what they are going to be voting for, so they aren’t going to be voting blind,” Maroney said.
Ochman pointed out that the RTM can’t add to the budget, they can only cut more.
Board member John Sini said that while all the points were valid, and the Board of Finance’s role is not to cut line items, they maybe looked at things from a top down approach.
“We may not be happy with the process but tonight is not the night to make decisions,” Sini said.
While he said he wanted more detail on Addley’s suggested list, he also said the board should revisit the entire budget and items added during the original process.
“There were some things we were not unanimous on, iPads and things that we had a little deeper of a discussion over. This is a good start. Truly, there are going to be some impacts, but we need to do this deliberately and thoughtfully and realize that this $557,000 is not likely to change,” Sini said.
Board member Michael Burke also echoed the previous comments and said at the Board of Finance there were members who wanted even deeper cuts than had been decided upon.
“I think there’s a case to be made that there’s a disconnect. You have a board that compassionately does not want to affect student programming, and I believe they don’t, and we have educational professionals, our leader, saying it will,” Burke said.
“There’s a disconnect here that has to be resolved,” Burke said.
Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman, after discussing this with the Board of Ed, offered to reach out to the Board of Finance to explain that and discuss the cuts further before the Thursday vote.
On Wednesday, Board of Ed member John Sini, speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the board, said, “When the Board of Education unanimously passed its recommended budget in February, the risk of COVID-19 gravely affecting our everyday lives was not in the frame of reference.”
“I respect the Board of Finance’s deliberative effort to address Darien taxpayers' burden during this unprecedented global health and economic crisis,” he said.
“Assuming the Board of Finance and RTM do not make further adjustments to the budget; I am confident that we will be able to maintain the quality education experience that our community knows and expects,” he said.
On Wednesday, Ochman told The Darien Times she had not heard back from Zagrodzky on setting up a meeting between the Board of Ed and Board of Finance.
The Board of Finance will meet Thursday to vote to set the mill rate and on a final budget at 5 p.m., to be broadcast on Darien TV 79. Watch the stream here.
In an email late Wednesday afternoon, Zagrodzky invited both boards and the superintendent to participate in the Board of Finance meeting.
“Per my calls to you both this afternoon, I would like to invite you to participate in the Board of Finance meeting tomorrow, May 14, at 5 pm. I would welcome, and in fact encourage, the participation of your fellow Board members plus the superintendent and other key personnel as you see fit,” he wrote to Stevenson and Ochman in an email copied to all board members, Jim Cameron and The Darien Times.
“The purpose of your participation will be to offer any additional input on the 2020-2021 budget. The Board of Finance will vote on a budget and mill rate to recommend to the RTM after hearing your input,” he wrote.
Following the Board of Finance vote, the budget then goes to the RTM for a virtual meeting and final vote on June 8. The RTM can move to reduce the budget but not add to it.