Town administrator proposes 3% selectmen’s budget increase
The total Board of Selectmen budget proposed increase is just under 3%, at 2.94%, according to Darien Town Administrator Kate Buch. Buch presented the budget at the Jan. 28 and Jan. 29 Board of Selectmen meetings at Town Hall.
This increase excludes an accounting change for Parks & Recreation but includes capital requests, Buch said.
The total 2019-20 budget request is $48,926,032. The current year’s budget totals $47,049,394.
When introducing her budget proposal, Buch said, “We asked the department heads to prepare zero-based budgets.” She added that she evaluated the budget request not just to the current budget, but also to “prior year actuals.” She also looked at any increase that was “a certain percent over last year’s budget or over the prior year’s actuals” and “looked at seven to eight years’ worth of history on the accounts.”
According to Buch, there was consolidation of “some minor, less-used budgets into one budget.” This resulted in a $.01 million decrease in the budget.
In preparing the proposed budget, Buch included budget drivers for each of the departments.“The intent there is to show what costs impact the department budget,” she said.
Self-funding partner programs
There is an addition of $495,000 to the Parks & Recreation expense budget as part of an accounting change related to self-funding programs.
According to Buch, there was an accounting change in handling self-funding partner programs. These are “things we run where the revenues we take in from them completely cut the expenses,” she said. “We’ve moved them into the general fund for more transparency in the accounting.”
There is an offsetting increase of $495,000 to the Parks & Recreation revenue budget.
The police chief requested both an additional sworn officer and three additional civilian dispatchers. “This was an either/or option,” Buch said. “Either one would get us to a point where we could get an SRO [school resource officer] at the middle school.”
Buch’s proposal is to add the additional dispatchers rather than hire an additional sworn officer.
She said there should be two people on dispatch at all times, a middle school SRO and a dedicated narcotics officer.
With all police, it would cost $1,037,000. With a mix of civilian dispatchers and police, it would cost $1,011,000.
With everybody at the top step, “maxing out,” she said it would cost $1.3 million for the police and $1.2 million for a mix of civilian dispatchers and police officers.
“We invest a lot of money in training the police officers and we should use them for what they’re trained to do,” Buch said.
She added that an individual who is trained to do dispatch will perform those duties at a higher level than someone who is trained to do it on a periodic basis. “If we assigned an officer exclusively to the dispatch desk, they lose their abilities as an officer,” she said.
Due to a personnel issue, in 2017, an employee had to be reassigned from the Parks & Recreation Department to the Public Works Department. Since that time, Parks & Recreation has worked with one less employee. The addition of Highland Farms and Short Lane property to the responsibility of the department was one reason the director asked to have that position restored, according to Buch.
She said there is a need for both positions.
Without these personnel additions, the increase in the operating budget would be about 2.95% and the overall increase including capital requests would be just over 2%.
“These personnel increases are significant,” Buch said.
Buch proposed increased hours for the blight officer. “The time required to investigate and properly document blight cases has exceeded our original expectations,” Buch said. The blight officer works only about five hours a week and the position doesn’t include benefits.
Stevenson said that when the town was debating the blight ordinance, “we thought that there might be a dozen or so cases, but we’ve already had 50 properties for which we had to do some kind of diligence on.”
She added that not all those cases are blight but they still require the time and effort of a staff member to determine this.“About 50% of the complaints we would get were not blight but there have been a number that met the criteria and then there’s a number that are on our watch list,” she said.
Highland Farms, Short Lane
The two biggest items in capital budget this year that should be looked at for bonding, according to Buch, are funding for the parking lots at Highland Farms and for the development of the Short Lane property adjacent to Weed Beach.
Also, there is the continued funding of reserves for the purchases of equipment and maintenance of town buildings. “We have money in there for sidewalk rehabilitation and for new sidewalks, [and] paving,” Buch said.
The town is trying to change the hours of Town Hall, where it would be open later one night of the week and closed for the day on Friday. “We couldn’t get the union agreement that would allow us to do that,” Buch said.
Currently, there are three employees who are piloting these hours to see how it might work and to see if this can be done in other offices. The fire marshal, the deputy fire marshal and the human resources director are coming in earlier and leaving earlier.
“Part of the deal is that between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., they are not open to the general public,” Buch said. That time is for plan review, appointments with contractors and other matters, she added.
Flexible hours also add quality of life for the employee, according to Buch.
“We are doing this on a trial for three months to see how it works. The whole concept began with thinking about our department heads in that it’s more difficult to attract quality employees from within the region,” Buch said. “We have multiple department heads and high level reps that are commuting an hour or more to work” so it would be a good idea “if we can find a way to provide them a four-day work week and at the same time, provide greater service to our citizens.”
The town is evaluating options for the renovations for the basement of 35 Leroy Avenue, where the Board of Education is located. At least a significant portion of the basement there is in the control of the town, not the Board of Education, according to Buch.
At the beginning of this month, Buch put out an RFP (Request for Proposal) for architectural services to do schematics, and did not get enough response to it. So she pulled the RFP and will put it back out after this round of the budget process.
“We are going to send it out to some people specifically and make sure that they get it and hope to get some more interest in it. The idea is for them to look at the space as a possible location for probate court. I think it really would be well-sited for it with the office space and the availability of the large meeting room,” she said. “We’d also like it to be where you could close off those offices at night and that meeting room would be available for town meetings. The question would be how much would it cost.”
Buch increased the legal budget on the assumption that the town would see more assessment appeals that need legal council involvement in the next fiscal year, “and then it should drop off as the years go by,” she said.
This budget assumes a general election and a presidential primary.
Buch said she thinks there will be at least one presidential primary. “The question is whether or not we need to plan for two or whether there will be primaries for any other elections that will be happening in the fall of 2020. We have six districts. You’re not supposed to move the voting place outside the district. Even then, you’re supposed to have it in a contiguous district.”
First Selectmen Jayme Stevenson asked if there could be the same number of representatives to the RTM and have them be in three consolidated districts.
Buch said yes but it would also require the agreement of the RTM.
The Beautification Commission has asked for $20,000 to refresh the landscaping in front of Town Hall. Buch reduced that to $7,000.
“They do a nice job but when we’re making some personnel decisions and other expense decisions, how much we spend to pretty up the front of Town Hall just wasn’t a priority for me,” she said.
The workers’ compensation and liability of the At Home in Darien van is a concern to Buch, she said.
The town pays the drivers of the At Home in Darien van. They get the gasoline through the town and they reimburse the town the cost of the wages and the gasoline. However, they don’t reimburse the town for FICA, Medicare, workers’ compensation, and auto insurance.
“We are carrying a liability for employees that are not actually ours,” Buch said. “We don’t control the hiring of them. I think we should consider possibly providing a grant to At Home rather than paying for these other things.”
Buch said her concern is that the drivers are a high risk. “We don’t do this for other organizations. It’s an important service to provide but we’re taking on a risk from employees who are not ours.”
“They are eligible for certain senior transportation-related grants through the state of Connecticut,” Stevenson said.
The town is reducing the cost of the medical adviser. “We’ve lowered the retainer that we’re paying,” Buch said. “This $3,000 provides for a retainer includes some basic services and some additional consulting hours for a health emergency.”
Additional budget items
Personnel costs, which includes salaries and benefits, is the largest chunk of the proposed budget. Contractual services come next, and then debt service.
By department, the largest expense is debt service. The next biggest is general overhead and miscellaneous expenses.
In regard to overtime, the police patrol budget is the largest, with Public Works coming in second.
Other notable items in the budget, according to Buch, include adding funding that would enable the town to reduce some long-term liabilities needed to compensate absences. “Currently, the majority of our employees with the exception of the police department can accrue an excessive amount of vacation time,” Buch said. “We would like to reduce the amount of vacations that they can carry over from one year to the next.”
“This budget is now my proposal to you for how to best carry out your policies, how to meet your goals and objectives, addressing growth in the town and respecting taxpayer needs,” Buch said.
At the Jan. 28 meeting, Stevenson said that a 3% or over increase in the Board of Selectmen budget “is not a sustainable increase, in my opinion, so we have some work to do.”