After a meeting lasting more than three hours Darien’s Representative Town Meeting approved the town budget for 2017-18 as proposed by the Board of Finance. The budget appropriation totaled $145,304,061 and the town will adopt a mill rate of 16.16 for taxation.

Though the budget was approved without modifications from the RTM, several committee members said this year’s budget process was particularly challenging. During what RTM Finance & Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis referred to as the “buddy system,” members of the committee worked alongside the Board of Finance in each meeting of their budget review process to solidify communication between town officials and the RTM.

Like the Board of Finance, both Davis and RTM Committee Education Chairman Dennis Maroney expressed frustration with the Board of Education for communication failures during the budget process. Davis said he had spoken with Board of Education Chairman Michael Harman to ensure that their relationship was improved prior to the start of next year’s budget season.

The budget was approved by a series of votes approving the selectmen’s operating budget, the education operating budget, capital expenditures and other appropriations for infrastructure management. Education comprises the bulk of the budget at $95.87 million. It was one of the Board of Education’s capital expenditures however, that commanded the bulk of the discussion on Monday night.

Of the $6.7 million set aside for the town’s capital and non-recurring expenditures in the upcoming year, $$1.689 million has been designated for the expansion of the Darien High School cafeteria. Members of the RTM’s Education Committee were split 8 to 7 in favor of supporting the cafeteria expansion. The dissenting members questioned the cost and timing of the cafeteria project. Committee members also criticized the flow of pertinent information from the Board of Education, claiming that each meeting seemed to bring previously unmentioned details.

District 4 Representative Jay Hardison proposed that the Board of Education explore alternative seating options in the current cafeteria in order to save the expense of an expansion project. He proposed an amendment to the budget resolution; the $1.689 million for the cafeteria project would reduced to $300,000 for new seating arrangements at the high school. In his reasoning, the new seating could increase the maximum capacity of the building to meet the needs of the large incoming classes.

The Representative Town Meeting can adjust the appropriation amounts for the Board of Education budget but cannot compel the school district to adopt a specific plan for the cafeteria. Some RTM members explained that the Board of Education could simply leave the money in the budget and make a secondary request later with a plan that matched their needs. Hardison suggested that the amendment would be made in good faith, with the Board of Education using the appropriated funds to engineer a solution for the cafeteria.

Several RTM members spoke in favor of the cafeteria project as proposed by the Board of Education. Specifically some asked for voters to consider the psychological impact that an overcrowded cafeteria could have on the student community. Though some students do opt to eat their lunch outside of the cafeteria, the importance of having a seat at the table was stressed. The amendment to lower the capital appropriation fell in a 18-57-1 vote.

The cafeteria expansion project is expected to coincide with the Board of Education other capital projects; the repair of the Darien High School track and the installation of a storage shed. With the capital appropriation approved the school district will release a RFP for the project later this year and plans to complete the cafeteria expansion during the summer of 2018.

RTM members did express some concerns about the school district’s decision to restructure departmental staff positions and establish a new alternative schooling program, but ultimately chose to support the education budget with a vote of 63-7-7. RTM committee chairs said the increase in the education spending was the lowest in recent years despite the new initiatives, which target some of the district’s pressing needs. The proposed increase in spending is 2.16%, though a withdrawal of state funding has increased the overall appropriation.

The Representative Town Meeting supported the Board of Selectmen’s operating budget which saw a minimal increase. New expenses stem from new part-time staff and an investment in the town’s civilian dispatch program. The part-time positions will aid the town’s planning and zoning department as they oversee several proposed redevelopment projects in town, including those in the areas Noroton Heights, Post Road & Corbin Drive and Kensett Lane.

As they completed a stressful budget process for this year, town officials again acknowledged the uncertainty of the state’s financial situation. With Hartford unlikely to meet their June 7 deadline for the state’s 2017-18 budget town officials will likely be forced to respond to budget cuts and other mandates. Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky said a joint committee will meet over the summer to devise a strategy to tackle the lack of state support for Darien.

Furthermore, he suggested that those who want to see greater change in how the town approaches spending and tax increases should get involved now to ensure that their voices are heard.