Board leaders pleased with town’s performance
Town leaders emphasized the good about Darien at the annual State of the Town at the Representative Town Meeting.
Throughout the 90-minute-meeting on Monday, Dec.10, the chairmen of the Planning & Zoning Commission, Board of Education, and Board of Finance, as well as First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, gave a very uplifting picture of Darien’s accomplishments over 2018, as well the future of the town.
Seventy-seven out of 98 members of the Representative Town Meeting attended the State of the Town, according to the Darien Town Clerk.
Planning and Zoning
Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman John Sini, whose term ends in November, said Monday night was likely “my last State of the Town address.”
He then spoke of the highlights of the year, referencing Baywater Properties’ downtown Corbin project. He said the downtown development, which will consist of nine new multi-story buildings, “will arguably represent the largest in the Darien’s history.”
He also spoke of the commission’s approval of affordable housing units on East Lane, related to the Corbin project, which will be for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Sini referenced the replacement of the Scout Cabin on West Avenue. He said the final resolution for the project “represented a true compromise by fulfilling the needs of the scouts while limiting the impact to the surrounding neighborhood, all while complying with local zoning and special permit requirements and standards.”
Sini addressed the recent flooding incidents on Heights Road, saying the town will be building flood mitigation systems and other drainage improvements in the area, “which will be further enhanced by a town-sponsored project in the Noroton Heights Commuter lot.”
Sini addressed the many new businesses that opened over the last year, including Hollow Tree Ridge Self Storage; Flour, Water, Salt; Bankwell; Osteostrong; Dance on the DL; Huntington Learning; Bonny Reflexology; Danny’s Cycles; and Roost.
Board of Education
Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman spoke about the safety and security upgrades made at many of the schools.
New entrances have been installed at Holmes and Middlesex schools, and additional cameras have been installed to provide greater surveillance capability for the district and with police in the case of an emergency, she said.
Ochman brought up the returfing of the baseball field, which she said is “almost complete.” She added that this “will allow for a variety of school activities to take place on safe and well- maintained fields.”
In addition, she said there will soon be solar panels on many of the schools, “which will be bring with them an estimated $1 million of savings over the next 10 years.”
She brought up the building project for a new Ox Ridge School.
“I believe this project is something we can all be proud of,” Ochman said.
Board of Finance
Jon Zagrodzky, chairman of the Board of Finance, said that overall, the town and the schools have been “well managed” from a financial standpoint.
Referring to a detailed PowerPoint presentation he created, he said the grand list for 2018 has been “relatively stable.”
It’s about $8.5 billion for residential, and $1.2 billion for non-residential.
In terms of revenue sources for the town, in 2011, Darien had about $101 million in property taxes, which was about “92% of our revenue being driven by property taxes,” he said. He added that although the town now has more than $137 million in property taxes, the percentage hasn’t much changed over the years.
In regard to state grants, Zagrodzky said the value of state grants has “eroded” over time. They went from from $2.6 million in 2011 to $600,000 in 2018.
The good news, he said, is if state grants are all suddenly taken away, “it’s not as impactful as it would be otherwise.”
In regard to expenditure growth, since 2011, Darien grew from having $110 million in expenditures, to $142 million. “That is an annual growth rate of 3.7%. Total annual spending is 29% higher than it was in 2011,” Zagrodzky said.
Regarding the Board of Education, much of the increase in spending is due to special education costs, he said.
“With all other spending by the Board of Education, there has been a 3% growth since 2011. With special education spending, there has been an 8.2% growth,” he said.
In 2011, special education was 19% of the overall Board of Education budget, and today it’s 25%.
Zagrodzky said that, while special education costs “are a concern,” much of this is due to the continually increasing speed of diagnosis and treatment for these students.
“We live in an environment where children are aggressively diagnosed and treated with these types of problems, increasingly so,” he said. “It’s an environment where caring and loving parents aggressively promote the interests of their children and it’s an environment where law and regulation aggressively protects spending on this.”
In regard to the town’s current finances, Darien has a $3.4 million surplus for 2018.
Zagrodzky said the current situation is “modest growth,” and everything is “pretty good for the moment.”
Zagrodzky also noted that the town has implemented OpenGov, a “cloud-based solution.” He said that OpenGov improves budgeting and reporting and adds new transparency. Zagrodzky said “gently” asking the Board of Ed to adopt this approach has been to “no avail.”
In bold, on the bottom of his slide, Zagrodzky said “It is now time for the Board [of Ed] to do so.”
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson spoke about her recent meeting with Gov.-elect Ned Lamont, which she said left her feeling “hopeful and optimistic about Connecticut’s future.”
Referring to his recent interview with the Darien Times, she said Lamont “pledged to hold the line on taxes, including reducing business taxes and regulations to help make Connecticut more competitive and to invest in education, infrastructure and workforce development.”
Stevenson then spoke about all the improvements and developments the town has made this year.
She referenced the upcoming planned renovations to Pear Tree Beach.
“The Parks and Recreation Commission and Department’s Master Plan is complete and a building committee has been formed to undertake these renovations,” she said.
In addition, she said the parks staff cleared the Short Lane property, which she said is a “wonderful addition of precious waterfront property to Weed Beach.”
Stevenson spoke of Highland Farm, which is now available “for the whole community to enjoy,” she said.
She said the Town Garage Renovation Project was completed ahead of schedule and $500,000 under budget.
She also mentioned the savings that will be achieved by all the solar installations in town.
By the spring of 2019, solar installations at the Darien Police Department, Town Hall and Town Garage “will be operational with anticipated savings of nearly $500,000 over 20 years,” Stevenson said.
“Darien continues to be the town of choice in Southwest Connecticut. Great schools, easy commute, low mill rate and a commitment to thoughtful redevelopment are working in our favor,” Stevenson said. “If we stay the course with discipline and conservative long-range planning, we will not only survive the state’s fiscal crisis — we will thrive and continue to be one of the very best towns in which to raise a family and own a business.”