Police, library and debt service were among the larger departments discussed at the one hour-and-45-minute Board of Finance budget work session on Thursday, May 7.

The session was held to reevaluate the proposed 2020-21 town budget, which is $47,875,998.

Recap

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 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 total dollar tax levy.

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 to be presented to the Board of Finance.

The $680,000 represents a deferment of $500,000 in fire apparatus replacement reserves, bonding of $75,000 in new sidewalks and $75,000 in Town Hall gymnasium upgrades, and a deferral of $30,000 to the Public Works equipment reserve.

Budget discussion items

 Police: Record management software system, a $38,000 charge

 Radio replacement for $90,000: Half of the deployment of the radios can be delayed a year. Darien Police Chief Don Anderson was comfortable with that, according to Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky.

 Civil dispatch: This is a 10-year project for getting a fully implemented civil dispatch. They now have five dispatchers and are asking for four more to get to nine, at a cost of roughly $301,000.

“We are handling about $15,000 calls a day using civil dispatch,” Zagrodzky said. “New Canaan was $20,000 earlier in the year but they dropped to $13,000. The largest of anybody is Trumbull, who are about $20,000. We are in a pretty descent spot where that is.”

 Public Works: estimates include road and walkway maintenance that are very much subject to weather, so it would be unusual to not see variances in those counts, according to Board of Finance member Dan Bumgardner.

 Parks and Recreation: $1.9 million, total operating budget. Up $5,000.

It will cost $36,000 to repaint the Weed Beach tennis courts, $15,000 to upgrade playground equipment, $15,000 to repair and restore the existing basketball court at Cherry Lawn Park. “The basketball court represents a safety concern in town,” Bumgardner said.

 Beautification: Most of the $34,000 is for the flower baskets in town.

“It’s nice to have this in the midst of a really dark time,” said Board of Finance member Taylor Carter.

 Celebrations and community grants: $77,000

There are about $71,000 in grants: $8,000 for the holiday lights, $10,000 for the historical society, $53,000 to the Depot Youth Center.

 Senior Center: $430,000.

“There are a lot of revenues that occur behind these expenditures,” Board of Finance member James Palen said.

Palen added that it’s hard to predict what the situation will look like in three months, when everything opens back up, in regard to additional expenses related to cleaning and membership.

In the last five years, membership at the senior center has gone up almost 50 percent.

“If that attendance drops, we could see program participation drop,” Palen added.

 Library: As part of their budget proposal, there was a $25,000 cut that the Board of Selectmen decided to take. The reason was a sense that the compensation increases the library offers were out of sync with what the town offers its employees.

The library said they require those percent increases to attract and retain high quality people. While the library wanted that amount restored, the Board of Finance decided not to restore it, due to the uncertainty during this time of the pandemic. However, they said they can reevaluate this issue at a future date.

 Debt Service: “About four weeks ago, we raised 25 million dollars in new debt for the upcoming construction of the Ox Ridge [Elementary] School,” Palen said.

The debt service is about 60 percent for school projects and 40 percent for town projects.

“Our outstanding debt balances are a little bit higher for the school projects, given the new school that’s coming on board,” he added.

 Fund Balance: The town’s reserve that it can draw on in an emergency. The town’s fund balance is $23 million.

Darien’s fund balance policy, which sets a level for fund balance, is defined as a percentage of budgeted expenditures for the town. The floor that they have set is 12 percent of that number.

At 12 percent, the town has about 5 million dollars in excess fund balance.

“If there is an emergency [such as in regard to the effects of the coronavirus], we have about 5 million dollars we can draw on to meet those expenditures if we need to,” Zagrodzky said. We’re in a very good spot as a result of that.”

 Excess funds: Instead of making the decision on excess funds now, the Board decided to look at them in the summer. “We will do that with individual discussions for both the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen,” Zagrodzky said.

“Any funds we identify from that, we can put them in fund balance and bolster our reserves further,” he added.

 Fire marshal: The Board of Selectmen has increased the revenue that the fire marshal is expected to receive by $50,000 dollars.

 Fire apparatus reserve: A big part of the Board of Selectmen cuts was the fire apparatus reserve.

“Every year, the town contributes $500,000 to the fire apparatus reserve,” Zagrodzky said. “It’s a buildup of cash so when it comes time to replace a major piece of fire equipment such as fire trucks, we built up that reserve balance.”

The Board of Selectmen has proposed cutting this year’s fire apparatus reserve contribution.

“The cut is justified because in addition to that, they will take a fresh look at the replacement schedule for those vehicles,” he said. “Our fire department vehicle strategy is part of this.”

Therefore, Zagrodzky said he approves taking out the $500,000 contribution.

 Bonding: The total that the Board of Selectmen recommend for bonding is $608,000 for the flat tax levy scenario.

“I’m inclined to support all of those changes,” Zagrodzky said.

He said that the cuts in their totality were not made with the intention of damaging town services or assets.

“They were all done very thoughtfully,” he said.

 Civilian dispatchers: $310,000 for next year.

This includes salary, overtime, benefits and social security to bring on three dispatchers.

“This is part of a longer term strategy to replace sworn officers who are typically manning the police station for the purpose of dispatching services,” Zagrodzky said. The sworn officers would be replaced with civilian dispatchers, so the sworn officers can be out in the field doing their work.

In regard to town safety, if this is delayed a year, the town will not be impaired in any way by a deferral of this item, board members said.

They decided, however, to make this a priority item when deciding upon next year’s budget.

“I’m in support of the deferral for a year,” Zagrodzky said.

There was a discussion of a memo from the RTM F&B Committee about bonding the police department HVAC project. This is wiring a rooftop unit and the building management system.

In regard to whether or not this is a bonding candidate, more information would be needed from the Board of Education regarding the expected life of the rooftop unit.

The Board of Finance plans to reevaluate this in the summer.

Next steps

The Board of Selectmen ended up at a cut of $983,000 verses a flat tax levy at $591,000.

May 12: Tuesday, Board of Education, a budget workshop session at 5 p.m. This meeting will be live-streamed on the web and accessible for all.

May 14: Thursday, the Board of Finance will vote on the cuts formally.

Watch the Board of Finance special meeting on Darien TV/79.

sfox@darientimes.com