Second Darien 'Coffee & Conversation' covers state and town issues

Given the need for hard financial choices—much of them rooted in the state’s ongoing difficulties with employee pensions—First Selectman Jayme Stevenson wants her constituents to tell her how they would choose.

A second “Bring It Home” coffee and conversation event was held last weekend at McGuane Field House, with Stevenson, State Rep. Terrie Wood, and Jon Zagrodzky, Board of Finance chairman, giving some 50 residents a summary of how state and local budgets are being driven.

“We’re now at a point where we have to look at what we can eliminate,” Stevenson said.

“What services … what initiatives … What are you willing to give up, if anything, so we can keep our mill rate as low as possible?” she asked.

“I’m not asking that in a provocative way,” she said, but explained the budget—due for vote Monday night—“keeps services at the existing level,” she said.

She said the exceptions are some additional funding toward emergency services and an additional employee to tend the parks and beaches.

Otherwise, she said, the proposed $48.9 million budget, which represents a 3-percent increase over the current year, is to maintain the status quo.

The Board of Selectmen passed their budget last Monday.

“It’s critically important that we hear what you are thinking,” Wood said, recounting the verities and variables of standing and proposed state legislation and the impact on municipal budgets.

“I remain a fan of Gov. (Ned) Lamont,” she said. “I believe he’s making his best effort. Everyone knows we’re in a tough situation (and) he’s a man of a lot of common sense.”

Wood did, however, place blame on some Democrats in the legislature whom she said continue to vote in support of state unions, whose long-term contracted benefits have exacerbated costs.

“That needs to be modified,” she said. “I don’t know what to say.”

Lamont’s proposed state budget calls for most municipalities to shoulder 25 percent of teacher’s pensions.

“I’m not going to opine positive or negative,” Stevenson said. “We’re blessed in this community.”

"The state’s in a bad way,” she said. “We need to participate and perhaps this is a way to do it.”

She noted, however, that what troubled her was a lack of mandate relief in the budget proposal. She said analysis has shown that 17 percent of the Board of Selectmen budget in Darien was due to state mandates.

On the local front Zagrodzky noted that, “based on the budgets we have right now,” more than a 4-percent tax increase will be required in town to meet the costs. This analysis would include a 3-percent increase requested in the Board of Education budget.

In terms of the state financial crisis, he emphasized that it was a relatively temporary situation and would eventually pass.

“This is a bubble and this is a demographic bubble that’s been created (and) we’re going to work through this,” he said.

Zagrodzky said, however, he was worried that as more funding eventually comes in to the state, it was important that it not be squandered, creating more problems down the road.

“Solve the damn problem. It is not fair to impose these taxes and those changes … and not solve the problem long-term,” he said, noting the Teachers Retirement System can be restructured in 2027 and that by 2033 the problem should be under control.

This was the second “Bring It Home” event held, organized by the Republican Town Committee.