Darien selectmen OK $51M proposed budget, near 6% year-over-year increase includes Great Island costs

Exterior view of Darien Town Hall in Darien, Conn., on Wednesday July 20, 2022.
Exterior view of Darien Town Hall in Darien, Conn., on Wednesday July 20, 2022.Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — The Board of Selectmen has unanimously approved a $51,268,400 town budget, a 5.8 percent increase from last year’s $48.4 million adopted budget that takes into account, among other things, the cost of purchasing Great Island.

The new spending proposal, approved by the selectmen Wednesday, also includes money for more town employees. The selectmen also approved $3,725,077 for the town’s capital fund.

“I want to thank the Board of Selectmen for helping bring forward a budget that supports our town needs and addresses the growth we’re experiencing as well,” First Selectman Monica McNally said after the final vote.

The majority of the increase came from the town’s $12.9 million debt service cost, growing by $2.5 million because of several large expenses including the $103 million Great Island purchase and the $68 million cost to renovate three elementary schools.

On the other end, a proposal to add more town staff positions would bring in more money to the town, officials said.

Town administrator Kate Buch said that hiring the positions were necessary given the growth of the town and the need for more inspections between restaurants and housing. She also added that the cost would likely be offset by increased tax revenue from more residents and businesses.

“The current capacity that we’ve had and all that has been static for an awfully long time and predates, I think, even my involvement in government,” selectman Jon Zagrodzky said during discussion Tuesday in support of the additions. “Given everything that’s going on in terms of growth in the town and all that, you match that up against this and I just don’t think we can keep our current capacity as is.”

Based on the 2023 mill rate, tax revenue from the town’s growing grand list is expected to expand by $2 million, though the mill rate for fiscal year 2024 has yet to be determined. The town’s parking revenue also appeared to be returning to pre-pandemic rates, officials said.

Eventually, the board agreed to hire a full-time emergency management director to begin in January, promote a full-time health department sanitarian position and full-time deputy fire marshal and bring back a second parking ranger. 

The police department had requested to expand the number of sworn officers by two, the first proposed staffing increase since the 1980s. Board members, however, all voiced concern that the department had not reached its current 51 officer capacity in years. 

The board eventually agreed to hire one police officer within the current budget cycle and the second if the department can reach full capacity by the end of the year. 

Absent from this year’s budget are transfers to the capital fund; the town designated approximately $1.3 million for the fund last year.

Buch recommended changing how the capital fund is financed, directing taxes of up to 4 mills toward the capital reserve fund under state statute rather than depositing all taxes into the general fund and transferring.

Buch told the board that depositing a portion of the mill rate directly into the capital fund would help mitigate capital expenses’ effect on general fund increases that have happened in the past.

“You’re always going to have volatility in the capital fund because of your funding sources because the Board of Finance really controls that, but you can stabilize what you’re doing in the general fund,” she said.

The Board of Finance is expected to hear both the town and Board of Education budgets on March 7.