State of the Town: Leaders look to the future despite state’s uncertainty
Darien’s leaders are expecting growth in the face of ongoing budget issues at the state level and the expected impact of federal tax reforms. During their annual State of the Town meeting the Representative Town Meeting, the town’s legislative body, heard remarks from the heads of the town’s elected boards, the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Education, the Board of Finance, and the Planning & Zoning Commission.
While the speeches highlighted many of the town’s accomplishments over the last year, town leaders also conveyed a message of patience and communication as Darien prepares for a period of fiscal uncertainty. First Selectman Jayme Stevenson has asked the town’s Department heads to budget for a 0 percent increase in funding, keeping their expenses even with last year. Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman said the district is committed to delivering a budget that meets the rising demands of state mandates while remaining fiscally responsible.
John Sini, chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, outlined some of the major projects coming in 2018, including a pair of redevelopments at Noroton Heights that will add nearly 200 new apartments to the neighborhood. As Darien continues to welcome new housing and improved infrastructure, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky suggested the town should begin to collaborate on a long term outlook for future budget cycles and capital projects.
Planning & Zoning
Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission looks much different than it did a year ago, having added three new members since Oct. 2016. The latest departure from the commission was Eric Voigt, who chose not to run for re-election after eight years on the board. He was replaced by Commissioner Jennifer Leahy in November. The commission approved 80 projects during the year, including the two Noroton Heights redevelopments; one at Noroton Heights Shopping Center with Palmer’s Market and the other at the neighboring area containing Stop & Shop and Walgreens.
Both projects include new buildings with a mix of retail, residential and restaurant space with the goal of moving the neighborhood towards a more village-style atmosphere. The Palmer’s project includes 59 one and two bedroom apartments while the project at Stop & Shop, known as The Commons at Noroton Heights, plans to add 122.
“The significant increase in Noroton Heights Business District’s housing supply should attract empty-nesters, young professionals and Metro-North Commuters to the area,” Sini said. “The commission worked closely with the developers to build flood mitigation systems and other drainage improvements.
He continued, “Likewise, we worked closely with multiple traffic experts to ensure traffic and pedestrian improvements -- specifically on Noroton Avenue and Heights and Hollow Tree Ridge Roads. So, not only will these projects bring beautiful pedestrian friendly developments with several open spaces, they will also deliver much needed infrastructure improvements to the area.”
Sini reviewed several other upcoming projects around town including the newly designed Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club, the town’s purchase of Ox Ridge Field and new affordable housing additions. The Planning & Zoning Commission’s role is to help guide local growth and Sini said Darien’s “suburban renewal” will continue to create value towards the town’s $8.5 billion dollar grand list as tax considerations linger.
Board of Education
Education funding makes up more than two-thirds of Darien’s annual budget and will continue to be a priority for the town even when threatened by the state withdrawing funds. Chairman Tara Ochman discussed the district’s achievements, ranging from college level STEM competitions for Darien High School students to state championship runs for the school teams. Ochman said that the district is working to encourage a diverse range of interests and the growing education needs of their students.
“Finding ways to best meet student’s need is directly seen in the town decision to invest
in department chairs this year,” Ochman said. “The district recognized that there was a need to ensure consistency in the delivery of curriculum across disciplines, as well as sequential
curriculum planning throughout grades six to 12.”
Darien Public Schools reworked its administrative system this year to include subject-specific department chairs overseeing mathematics, English, social studies, world language as well as special education. The district also established Fitch Academy, a program for students struggling with day-to-day schooling, at Darien Library. In its inaugural year the program is hosting 12 students and the board has received powerful responses from parents who feel they have reconnected with their children.
“There should be nothing more gratifying to anyone in public service than to hear this
type of feedback; and it happened because we all took a leap of faith together,” Ochman said.” We reasoned, we questioned, we debated; but in the end, we worked together to make it
The state has considered legislation to make some towns responsible special education funding and teacher pensions and Ochman acknowledged the growing number of state and federal mandates on the school district. Still, the district remains committed to providing the highest possible level of service.
“We have and will continue to find the best way to manage costs while always putting the needs of our students first,” Ochmand said.
Board of Finance
Jon Zagrodzky of the Board of Finance discussed the town’s recent success with metered budget increases and well managed debt service in light of the state’s financial crisis. Darien retains its AAA credit rating and the town has steadily worked to reduce its debt service, even as new initiatives like the purchase of the Ox Ridge Field and the Department of Public Works Garage call for investment.
Zagrodzky recommended that Darien maintain “tight local discipline” as the state works to solidify its budget or ultimately hit rock bottom. Part of that discipline includes holding off on new capital projects and programs along with employee hires, due to the long term costs. He advocated for innovation from town department heads as they attempt to meet the challenge of a zero percent increase.
“Low interest rates won’t last forever, and our debt load is approaching a point where we are in a position to make needed – and smart -- investments,” Zagrodzky said. “When we get to this point, there’s a lot we can do to ensure good communication and financial planning, so I look forward to talking about this.”
While not all projects are off the table Zagrodzky recommended that the town prioritize solving issues with the school population before looking to fund other initiatives. With the prospect of a new elementary school and other school facilities on the horizon there may need to be a large investment in the near future.
“I’m personally not supportive of considering other major capital projects, like those envisioned in the very expensive-sounding Parks Master Plan,” until we have potential school investments sorted out,” Zagrodzky said.
Town leaders will soon begin their budgeting process for the 2018-19 fiscal year with meetings scheduled through March.
Board of Selectmen
First Selectman is the town’s highest elected office and Jayme Stevenson has been working to ensure that the town is represented in state discussions as growth continues at home. On Monday Stevenson said “the best defense is a good offense,” as she described her efforts to help curb the impact of fiscal uncertainty locally. Wary of the impact of the state budget and the scheduled 2018 property revaluation in Darien, Stevenson has asked the town’s department heads to budget for a zero percent increase.
Stevenson has also taken on roles with the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG) and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) to help advocate for Darien and similar towns on state budget issues, the opioid crisis and transportation infrastructure. Though she has celebrated the collaborative work of the towns gathered under WestCOG Stevenson has also spoken against efforts to use the group to organize regional taxation or mandate human services.
“I am a strong voice against mandated service sharing, however I believe cities and towns should be encourage to voluntarily partner if they can pass on meaningful savings to taxpayers,“ Stevenson said.
She continued, “Having a leadership role in these regional and statewide organizations allows me to represent Darien well beyond our borders on a wide variety of issues.”
The Board of Selectmen helped the town mark several milestones over the last year, including the completed purchase of the Ox Ridge Field and the reconstruction of the Department of Public Works Garage on Ledge Road. The garage is being constructed under a new building committee process adopted by the Selectmen for capital projects this year.