First Selectman Michael Tetreau presented to the boards of Selectmen and Finance on Tuesday a $287.3 million operational budget -- including the Board of Education's financial plan -- for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY2014).
The proposed budget carries a 5.52 percent -- $15 million -- increase in expenses over the current $272.3 million plan. If approved as is by the Board of Finance and RTM, the budget would carry a 6.4 percent -- or 1.5 mills -- hike in taxes.
The proposed budget includes a $1.1 million lighter Board of Education budget than was adopted by the school board last month, Tetreau said, thanks to update health insurance figures. Tetreau also shaved off $1.8 million from department requests, he told the finance board.
Despite the tax increase, Tetreau said the town is "beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel" due to "strategic investments" in financial reserves and other moves that should allow for major commitments -- like health insurance -- to trend lower in future budgets.
One of the goals in the FY2014 budget is to shore up Fairfield's contingency and reserve fund, Tetreau said. Those contributions to the increase will not necessarily maintain their current magnitude year over year.
But Board of Finance Chair Tom Flynn identified a key word -- "hope, as in we hope this happens, we hope that happens, etc." -- in the discussion about future budgets.
"Hope isn't a strategy. We're going to have to look at the services we're providing," he said. "The cost of providing these services is affecting the affordability of this town."
Services vs. Affordability
While the other goals of the proposed FY2014 budget is to "maintain the services our residents need and expect at a cost we can afford," Tetreau agreed that those services need to be evaluated and the efficiency of their delivery determined -- and that could mean structural changes to the way departments run.
Finance board member Jim Brown recalled the audit that was done in 2010 when the auditors came back to the Board of Finance and said the town was running "as efficiently as you can" with its structural model.
Brown said it seemed that, based on the audit, the only way to slow increases is to run on a new model, though such a change could bring "pain" and major discussions.
There was also some talk of creating a "Service Evaluation Committee" comprised of town officials and residents. Tetreau said that many people have talked to him about their concerns with Fairfield's budget and tax rate and some have "great skill sets" that could be of use to such a committee.
'We Need to Go Out and Sell the Town'
In addition to gauging what the town can afford to provide as services, the financiers want to scope out more non-tax revenues to offset increases in spending.
Non-tax revenues for this budget are reduced by $79,000, a change that is "relatively flat" compared to the $700,000 drop the year prior.
"This is one of the indicators that our economy isn't back yet, but it may have bottomed out," Tetreau said.
Finance Vice Chair Rob Bellitto asked Tetreau about how he plans to attract large commercial bases to Fairfield.
"We need to go out and sell the town to whoever will listen...it's that cooperation and concerted effort that we're missing," Bellitto said, regarding working with developers to bring in more commercial property.
Tetreau said the town is currently a tough sell to large commercial enterprises -- there are only two sites that would work: the former Exide Battery Plant and the Fairfield Metro Center.
The Exide Plant site cannot be developed on until the Mill River is cleaned up -- which could take years -- and as for the Metro Center, "the developer has to find someone who will come before you can build it," Tetreau said, adding that developer Kurt Wittek has made it clear he wants to build a residential property on the site.
The Metro Center is a "conundrum," Selectman Kevin Kiley said. "The building is not built, the developer has a piece of land that we can't do anything about; it's one of two -- or maybe only one of one -- of the places in town that we can do anything creatively."
He told Tetreau and the Board of Finance that the town should fight a residential proposal "tooth and nail" so that the site could become home to a commercial base.
The boards of Finance and Selectmen will continue budget discussions on Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Board of Education Conference Room. The accounts up for discussion are contingency and pension.
* denotes a major "cost driver"
Department FY13 Budget (Approved) FY14 Budget (Proposed by 1st Selectman) Change ($) % Change % of Proposed Increase Board of Education* $148,936,464 $154,729,234 $5,792,770 3.89% 38.55% Pension* $3,514,478 $6,559,449 $3,044,971 86.64% 20.26% Contingency* $238,517 $2,559,140 $2,320,623 972.94% 15.44% Debt Service* $25,904,804 $27,589,186 $1,684,382 6.50% 11.21% Paving (Public Works)* $2,500,000 $3,500,000 $1,000,000 40% 6.65% Salary/Wages* $41,796,431 $42,739,151 $942,720 2.26% 6.27% Fees and Professional Services* $4,971,301 $5,495,143 $523,842 10.54% 3.49% Supplemental Contribution to Surplus Fund* $500,000 $925,000 $425,000 85% 2.83% Workers' Compensation* $2,550,890 $2,899,800 $348,910 13.86% 2.32% OPEB (Retirees' Health)* $8,331,367 $8,671,760 $340,393 4.09% 2.27% Health Insurance Activities* $9,933,702 $10,122,089 $188,387 1.90% 1.25% All Other $21,104,740 $21,519,688 $414,948 1.97% 2.76% Supplemental Contribution to Risk Management Fund $2,000,000 $0 ($2,000,000) -13.31% Total $272,282,694 $287,309,640 $15,026,946 100.00%