To the Editor:

The process for determining the Town’s 2020-2021 budget has become more difficult this year because of COVID-19. When the Board of Finance formally received the proposed budgets from the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education on March 3, the full scope of this pandemic had not yet become apparent. In the intervening weeks, many families and businesses have been seriously affected by the associated economic downturn.

Retail stores are closed, restaurants are limited to take-out orders, and according to Connecticut Department of Labor records, there were 637 initial unemployment claims by Darien residents from March 15 through April 26 (versus 32 in the same period last year), suggesting an unemployment rate of between eight and ten percent. These figures do not include Darien residents who might have lost jobs in New York, as they would have to file in that state. In any case, the news is bad and may get worse.

Shortly after we received the proposed budgets, we began to consider whether changes would be in order. At our April 14 meeting, we noted the increasing difficulties and asked whether we should be raising taxes at all. At a special meeting on April 23, we outlined specific reduction scenarios to reach a “flat budget.”

To determine the scenarios, we first identified a number of budget changes that could be made by the Board of Finance, including bonding of capital projects and a draw on the Board of Finance capital contingency reserve. After updating certain other budgetary assumptions, we were left with a gap to close of $1.3 million to reach a “flat mill rate budget” and $2.2 million to reach a “flat tax levy budget” (i.e., a budget that would raise the same tax dollars that we raised last year). We apportioned these reduction amounts to the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education based on their relative shares of the overall budget.

We recognize that the original budgets proposed by these two Boards were carefully crafted, with no obvious opportunities for reductions. As such, we called on both Boards to see if they could meet our targets with spending deferrals or other changes rather than outright cuts, stressing that any reductions should not materially affect town services and assets or the education of our students. Both Boards have responded thoughtfully to this request.

I recognize that “should not materially affect” is a subjective standard. Some have suggested that aggressive cuts are appropriate, while others have deemed any cut to the Board of Education budget as unacceptable. We will find a balance between these two views.

The Board of Finance meeting on May 7 will be live streamed on Darien TV 79. Watch here.

The Board of Finance will be meeting tomorrow, May 7, to discuss the Board of Selectmen budget and on May 12 to discuss the Board of Education budget; both meetings are at 5:00 pm. While we are not planning to have live participation in these meetings by anyone other than Board of Finance members and Town Director of Finance Jennifer Charneski, we do want to provide ample opportunity for public input and comment. Anyone is welcome to submit questions or comments to me at jzagrodzky@darienct.gov.

Note that while we will determine budget reductions at our meetings on May 7 and May 12, we will not have a formal vote on these reductions until May 14, which provides additional time for public comment. Once we do vote, the RTM will begin its work, with final budget appropriation and mill rate approval at its meeting on June 8. Your input into the Board of Finance process is particularly important since the RTM cannot reverse any reductions we make (though they can make further reductions).

These are trying times. Fear and uncertainty pervade our community as well as cities and towns across the state. Urgent short-term measures are needed, but we have to keep an eye on the long-term. This means budget reductions to help taxpayers now while protecting the services and assets that attracted us all to Darien in the first place. I can assure you that the Board of Finance will keep this firmly in mind in its upcoming deliberations.

Jon Zagrodzky

Chairman, Darien Board of Finance