As Connecticut’s state legislature remains embroiled in budget talks, Darien’s local leaders are considering how to best prepare the town for the state budget’s impact. On Monday Selectman Rob Richards suggested that Darien form its own state budget committee to provide policy recommendations to state leaders based on the town’s perspective. However, the other members of the Board of Selectmen questioned how effective a formal committee could be in the existing framework of the budget discussions.

Richards said the committee would gather local volunteers to examine the fiscal issues at the core of the budget and present non-partisan findings to legislators in Hartford. Ideally, the committee would help residents engage with and understand how the state budget impacts Darien. He told the board that he hoped Darien’s local finance experts would be able to deliver new solutions for the state by looking towards the future and avoiding partisan “finger pointing.”

“The Board of Selectmen’s mission is to respond to new challenges that can affect the lives of Darien residents and business owners, and I see no greater threat to our quality of life than the current budget crisis,” Richards said on Monday

During the budget season, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky recommended that town officials begin developing local strategies in response to the state budget this summer in order to prepare for the impact in Darien. However, Richards’ committee would examine the larger issues facing the state as a whole.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson contended that there are already several coalitions and non-government organizations dedicated to reviewing the budget and their recommendations have struggled to move talks forward. She provided the board with several reports on the sstate budget including an 80-page document released by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities in January 2017. The board’s other Republican members, Kip Koons and Susan Marks questioned how Richards expects to capture the attention of state legislator

Darien’s legislative delegation, which includes Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, Senator Carlo Leone,  State Rep. William Tong, Democrats, and Republican State Rep. Terrie Wood, is tasked with representing the town in Hartford. However, the group, other than Wood, has yet to appear before the current Board of Selectmen; the last time the full delegation briefed the town’s leaders in person was in April 2015. The board has renewed calls for the delegation to return to Darien as a part of their duty to constituents.

Koons attended the 2015 briefing as a concerned citizen frustrated at the lack of accountability in Hartford. He ran for Board of Selectmen later that year on a platform that included holding the state government fiscally responsible to its obligations in Darien. On Monday, he continued his criticism of the state.

“I just don’t see anything happening until there’s a political will to make the tough decisions,” Koons said  “There’s been lots of studies and you’re saying that ‘we’ll do it here and they’ll all listen to it.’ They haven’t listened to us yet; they don’t even want to come to respond.”

He continued, “We have a lot of work to do, Rob, because we have to worry about out how we’re going to cannibalize our budget going forward because the state problem is not going to go away. You can’t solve it overnight, nobody can solve it overnight, it’s going to take years.”

Marc Thorne, Richard’s fellow Democrat selectman suggested that the Board of Selectmen should remain focused on the town rather than making recommendations to the state. Thorne said he thought a non-partisan state budget committee was a good idea but felt it was outside of the purview of the board’s responsibility.

“When you get down to the recommendations, our job is what we were elected to do, and we weren’t elected to do that,” Thorne said.

Richards said on Monday that he still plans to organize a local group to discuss the budget, independent of his responsibilities as a selectman. Stevenson said that while recommendations from that group are not to represent Darien as a whole, they may be submitted later for adoption to by the board.

On Wednesday, Stevenson said that she appreciates that Richards seems to understand the gravity of the fiscal situation in Hartford and what it means to taxpayers.

“The issue has been coming to a head for quite some time and since the legislative session has officially ended, the time for substantive input was likely before now,” she said

Stevenson said she has reached out to organizations like the Council of Small Towns and other organizations looking out for Darien. She added it is the job of Darien’s state legislators to make themselves available and hear Darien’s concerns and potential ideas. Stevenson added that she was grateful for the Darien residents and business owners who did reach out to the delegation regarding the budget.

“I understand where Rob is coming from wanting to gather the thoughts of the smart people who live here in Darien and pass them on to the state,” she said.

However, she added that she had “significant reservations” in how well those intentions would be well received, since “Darien and 30 other communities are the targets th state desires to extract more revenue from, the ‘wealthier communities.’”

Stevenson said she and Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky have tried to be transparent in terms of the potential impacts the state budget could have on Darien and have participated in legislative input sessions.

She added that many of the state budget problems have been coming to a head for a long time and said admittedly it is hard to keep up with the situation in Hartford. To that end, she said she has distributed reading material from “non-partisan” organizations that get to the heart of the issues that are the basis for the fiscal crisis.

“That’s homework Rob and others can do if they are interested,” she said. But Stevenson added the most important thing people can do is contact their legislators and the governor and let their voice be heard — “that redistributing the fiscal crisis onto the backs of municipal taxpayers is shifting the burden, not solving the problem.”

Fundamentally, Stevenson said what she won’t participate in “is partisan bickering — this is a bipartisan issue and it requires bipartisan solutions.

Stevenson said the next six months will include conversations with the community as to how to deal with what will likely be a difficult state budget for Darien. “We need to get any idea from our taxpayers as to what tax increases they are willing to bear in order to preserve the services we currently offer,” she said.

Stevenson said she encourages all taxpayers to reach out at any time, jstevenson@darienct.org or 203-656-7338.   

Richards added that he intends to form the  unofficial State Budget Committee and anyone interested should contact him at rrichards@darienct.gov or call 203-424-0746.

"My only requirements are they should have some financial experience, can think out of the box, and will refrain from figure pointing. The mission of this committee will be to analyze state budget proposals, come up with possible solutions, and recommend fiscal priorities to our state representatives," Richards said.

Additional reporting by Susan Shultz, Times Editor.