Darien’s municipal budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year is now just one step away from approval after earning a 5 to 1 vote from the town’s Board of Finance. A total budget of $145,304,061 will move onto the Representative Town Meeting for a vote on May 8. If approved, the town’s mill rate would increase to 16.16, a 2.47% increase from the previous year.

Education expenses make up the bulk of the proposed budget at $95,874,776, the proposed Selectmen’s budget, which covers the town’s operational expenses is $49,429,285.

The Board of Finance’s approval did not come without its concerns, specifically on the Board of Education side of the budget. Board members questioned the school district’s choice to create new department chair positions to serve in place of existing curriculum coordinators and the decision to create an alternative schooling program. Ultimately the majority of the board opted to trust the school administration’s vetting and long term plan for the future.

That includes support for the renovation of the Darien High School cafeteria, which had become a point of debate between town officials. Board of Finance and RTM members had questioned whether the Board of Education could implement alternative designs for the project after the school district had narrowed its choice. In the end officials agreed that the cafeteria expansion was a necessary investment.

David Lopiano was the lone dissenting voice in the Tuesday night vote, citing ongoing frustrations with both town hall and the Board of Education. Lopiano criticized leaders on both sides of the budget for failing to respond to his requests for missing information. Lopiano said getting pertinent documents took weeks during the budget review process and that Board of Education officials have repeatedly failed to return details for transfer requests.

“Although we approve some or all of the funds requested, my inquiries regarding details supporting the requests were never met,” Lopiano said. “I think it’s important to send a strong message tonight that this is not to be tolerated moving forward.”

Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky acknowledged Lopiano’s frustrations, admitting that this was not one of the town’s stronger budget seasons in terms of communication. He suggested that rising tensions between town officials may have prevented necessary dialogue during the budget process. Many of the most contentious items during this year’s budget were ultimately not impactful for taxpayers, Zagrodzky said.

“People are talking past each other increasingly and we’re not spending enough time making sure that the officials in charge of these budgets and the people who are proposing them are having discussions and getting to understand where everyone is coming from,” Zagrodzky said.

Zagrodzky spoke directly to a rising conflict in town between those who would prefer to restrain education spending versus those who would like to maintain the existing rate of growth for the school district. Due to ongoing state budget issues education spending has become a hot button issue for a number of Connecticut towns, but Zagrodzky wants to avoid the brash budgeting decisions made by neighboring communities.

He suggested that if the town wants to restructure its education funding that discussion should begin this summer and should be shared by the town as a whole. Local officials would stand to gain a greater understanding of what the town’s residents want in the long term, without the immediate concerns that come with budget season. Zagrodzky said residents will then be able to use the 2017 election to decide the direction the town goes in.

For now the Representative Town Meeting will need to consider the budget as currently approved. The body is able to remove line items from the town’s operating budget, but is must choose to approve or reject the Board of Education budget in its entirety. The RTM’s annual budget meeting will be held on May 8.

kwebb@darientimes.com