is an inherently political process. This year the RTM was subverted by actions calculated to divert discussion from the real issue of overburdened taxpayers, compounded by the previous administration’s costly blunders.
The net result was overwhelmingly disappointing to all.
Suppositions, incomplete information, legal opinions and reversals of those opinions at the eleventh hour were designed to distract and created conflict. The resulting rhetoric was fraught with warnings of ultimate chaos. Any seasoned arbitrator, or any parent for that matter, knows that hyperbole does anything but enhance credibility.
The Town Attorney poked the hornet’s nest by reversing a legal opinion about process originally received by the Majority Leader twenty days before. That original opinion dictated the method of approaching the budget discussion. The reversal, a ‘clarification’ requested by the First Selectman, arrived by email two hours before the annual RTM meeting for public input. As it could only have intended to do, it diverted discussion away from responsible, considered debate and deteriorated into a log jamb of dissention and resentment.
Creating a budget for the next fiscal year based on the current year is an ungainly but necessary exercise. The budget books are published long before the fiscal year is over; actuals are as yet unknown. We then compound this by projecting it forward for another year. The interpretation of these variables or ‘spin’ gains momentum creating escalating conflict. Much of the resulting rhetoric raised ire, became divisive and thwarted reasonable negotiation and compromise. Polemics became the status quo.
The library budget is prime example of spin gone out of control. The hyperbolic sound bite after the RTM refused to restore a fraction of a percent cut by the Board of Finance was characterized as catastrophic to children and seniors with cuts to materials and threatened weekend hours. Many RTM members absorbed this as gospel. One opined eloquently about an aging mother who would have nowhere to go on weekends without a library.
But we need look no further than salary requests in the library budget to offset that cut. It is fact that of the 31 full time employees, 21 were budgeted for raises in excess of 8 percent. Five were slated for increases in double digit percentages and went as high as 16 percent. Part-time workers’ lines were lumped together without detail including $160,000 for “professionals.” An additional line item for “fees and professional services” increased by 51 percent to $148,000. Could the Town Librarian not have found a better way to serve the town by adjusting a few salary lines?
Our First Selectman gave the entire budget a pass without a single change to the total. The Board of Finance felt it was necessary shore up reserves to maintain our AAA bond rating. Did it have to be by raising taxes or could the funds have been found elsewhere by the administration before requiring that the BoF solve that problem?
In the end, the RTM voted to reduce the overall budget by one half of one percent. A tsunami of political rhetoric, accusations of bullying and dramatic exits from the meeting ensued. None of this contributed anything to the process – all of which was understandably born of frustration. No doubt we will again see the finger pointed at the RTM Majority for countermanding the shoring up of reserves. I am absolutely convinced that Town Attorney and the First Selectman set that train in motion by the their last-minute legal reversal tactic.
The reality is, our tax increases have been substantial. The trajectory is unsustainable. Our debt is too high. Our incomes are declining or stagnating as are our property values. Unemployment continues at an unacceptable level.
If we truly believe we can’t squeak by with about $268.9 million rather than $270 million, and if we believe Armageddon is on the way, we have all drunk the Kool-Aid. I know Fairfielders are smarter than that.
RTM District 4