Letter: 'We Know What "Fiscal Suicide" Looks Like'

RTM member Carol Pontrelli, R-9, reacts to last week's budget vote.

Budget reductions made by the RTM last week create no risk to the town, despite the dire language made by the Town’s Chief Fiscal Officer, The First Selectman has plenty of options available to him before and after the start of the next fiscal year to find costs savings and/or make budget cuts. In fact, our hope is that the First Selectman will use this opportunity to initiate cost-saving reforms in the town hall that we believe should have been done prior to this year’s budget. 

It is still unclear whether Mr. Hiller characterized these actions as ‘fiscal suicide’ for political purposes or out of just a loss for words the right words; perhaps having been caught of guard. Regardless of his intent, he is wrong. Similarly, he was wrong when he told the RTM that our surplus was dangerously low at $500k, a pretense which pushed many members to vote to bond just under $300k in overruns on a tank removal project at the downtown fire station keeping the already absorbed cost in the budget.

We were stunned, as was the Board of Finance, to hear from Mr. Hiller just two days later that the surplus was actually had $1.5 million. This is not to besmirch our CFO, who has served this Town loyally for many years. However, it is important to note because his words had a major influence on the debate of key votes in the last two RTM meetings and he turned out to be wrong in both cases.

The use of the phrase ‘fiscal suicide’ is timely because those who supported the budget reduction in question believe that is exactly the path we have been slowly taking for years. While we love our Town and are proud of the regional and national accolades we’ve received in recent years, financial mismanagement, short-sighted planning and simple incompetence are coming back to haunt us in a big way, making it impossible for us to control the growth of our budget and keep taxes down. Our key motivation is to reverse this trend.

After all, if cutting a measly $850k from a $273 million budget request is ‘fiscal suicide’, then what do you call it when you risk our employee pension fund by investing with Bernie Madoff (despite warning from members of our pension board) then you lose $45 million in value? Or what do you call it when you decide not to contribute to the pension fund for 10 years so when the Madoff scandal hits and the economy takes a nose-dive you are so under-funded that tax payers would have to contribute over $12 million each year just to get us back on track or risk losing our credit rating.

What do you call engaging in a partnership with a convicted felon to build an unnecessary third train station and then with stunning incompetence you sign an agreement that puts the Town on the hook for over $13 million on what was meant be over the long-run a ‘no cost’ proposition for Fairfield?  Or what do you call it when your First Selectman violates the Town Charter by circumventing the RTM to enter into that agreement?

What do you call rejecting a bid from the No. 1 company on the Fortune 500 list, ExxonMobil, to move their corporate offices to Fairfield and instead allowing developers to build a brand new neighborhood of homes, that will be filled with kids, further increasing enrollment in our schools?

And what is the term for allowing Town employees to contribute just $35 per week towards their $23,000 health insurance premium, when in the private sector employees usually contribute 50% of their premium. What’s the term for handcuffing yourself as a chief executive by giving the Department of Public Works employees a ‘no layoff’ clause in their labor contract, just so the Town can hire private contractors for maintenance and projects?

We know what “fiscal suicide” looks like. It’s a private citizen debt burden that has already overwhelmed a substantial portion of the people. “Fiscal suicide” is a public-sector spending trajectory which shows no rationale for moderation or reform. “Fiscal Suicide” is spending more money than you have; borrowing to improve cash flow; and finally bankrupting your sources of income.

Town leaders have certainly made a lot of poor decisions to get us in the precarious financial situation we’re in right now, but reducing this year’s budget by $850k certainly wasn’t one of them.


Carol Pontrelli

RTM District 9

Ffld mom May 16, 2012 at 12:44 PM
With all due respect, I think people are concerned less about $850,000 being cut and more about $850,000 being cut from the contingency fund. Had the RTM majority leader stated this intended cut on April 30 and allowed for public debate, I doubt that would have been the cut made. But I think he knew that and hence the "stay silent til the bitter end and don't ask anyone what they think" strategy. While we can debate past decisions and point fingers all we want, I think we have weighed in on many of those at the ballot box. As for the town employee and benefit contracts , those are all approved by the RTM and subject to binding arbitration. THe RTM should have asked the department heads what a 2 percent cut would look like at the start of the process, asked the tough questions and voted on the items they thought could be cut. Who knows- perhaps even more could have been cut. The reality is, we have made some mistakes in the past, and we are paying for them now, and we do need to be more thoughtful and cautious going forward. But risking the town's bond rating by cutting the contingency fund puts us in danger of paying even more interest on the debt we already have. That may have been an unintended consequence, but perhaps those consequences could have come to light had the RTM provided notice of their intent and allowed for public debate.
steve sheppard May 16, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Carol.....Very well written and you pointed out all the mistakes that we have made. One can only hope that oure political leaders have seen the light, or past mistakes, and learned from them. Hiller was wrong in his statement...financial suicide was all the bonding that Hiller let happen for special purpose items that had really nothing to do with running the basic operations of the town.
Ffld mom May 16, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Really? Mr. Hiller had a vote on those special purpose items we bonded? What did we bond that had nothing to do with running the basic operations of the town?
steve sheppard May 16, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Michele, Hiller is our CFO and as such has tremedous influence leading our financial direction. When the State wanted to build a parking garage at our train station with State funds the downtown merchants association, fairfield chamber of commerce, and the fairfield board of realtors petitioned against it. So instead we pushed for a third train station and now have bonded over 7 million dollars. Hiller could of voiced his concern about financial suicide back then. We bonded a skate board park and we bonded a 14 and under girls softball field that benefit less than half a percent of our town's population, where was Hiller then. I have no problem having these items features in town, but we could of had some private fundraising to support them. I never saw any kids fund raising for these special purpose items. The rating agencies know what financial suicide is or the direction one is heading to get there. Just keep increasing your bonding at a greater rate than past history or at a greater rate than your past yearly tax increases and it raises red flags. Also the rating agencies look at what kinds of projects you are bonding, are they basic functioning needs of the town or are they special interest projects. We have also given town property away for 50 year leases at $1 a year. These give aways I would call that fiscal suicide. Where was Hiller back then?
Stanley Simpleton May 16, 2012 at 04:01 PM
I recall every time that Ken Flatto would propose a spending initiative, whether it was on capital improvements, road maintanance, or any other pet project, he would becken Mr. Hiller to get up in front of the RTM and explain how it would "...only cost the town 16 or 22 cents per household, per year." It was the same show every single time. Every time, the conservative RTM members would vote against further bonding while the remaining members would invariably vote in favor. So, although Hiller is not fully to blame, he certainly is culpable in creating this mess that we are in.
Ffld mom May 16, 2012 at 04:39 PM
I am not debating the merits of these past decisions - and right or wrong, the decisons were made and voted on by elected officials. Mr. Hiller certainly can and has made his views known. The author said he has loyally served this town for many years. My point is in response to Mr. Shepherd's that he "let things happen" - he has no vote and all he can do is provide the information he is asked to provide. It is up to our elected officials to weigh the information he provides and make their decision. Unfortunately the night of the budget vote he was pretty much the only non-RTM member allowed to comment. Had the RTM allowed for public comment on their proposed plan, they may - or may not - have heard comments similar to Mr. Hiller's from others, and had they announced their plan on the 30th, like they were asked to do, we all would have had at least a week to weigh whether or not this course was prudent and whether another route may provide a better path. In this case, Mr. Hiller provided information - his assessment, and the Republicans voted to cut the contingency fund anyway. Arguably, I suppose the same case could be made that he let that decision happen. But I don' believe tht was Mr. Sheppard's intent. The Republicans acted on the motion to cut the contingency fund by $850,000, and time will tell whether their action was prudent or not. But they need to be held accountable for that decision.
steve sheppard May 16, 2012 at 04:58 PM
My intent was to agree that we have made serious mistakes and can only hope we have learned from them. I would like Hiller to stand up financially and bluntly explain "no more bonding" until we have fully paid for the projects we have outstanding, like the new train station, and work on lowering our taxes.
Chismosa May 16, 2012 at 08:10 PM
"Filled with kids." Instead of "Exxon Mobil." Hmmmmm.
Fairfield Resident May 16, 2012 at 11:04 PM
Mr. Hiller only states the facts by number. The numbers can change daily. The "measly" cut you mention, would have resulted in well over 50 people losing their jobs from both the Town and BOE. nice. Your words "financial mismanagement, short-sighted planning and simple incompetence" are not really supported. Ask commuters if Fairfield Metro was unnecessary. Perhaps you should direct your complaints there to the State of Connecticut who is also behind this magnificent project which is developing an eyesore into usable and taxable commerce. Madoff... you mentioned figures, those were the proposed profits which were lost... we did not lose any principal in that scandal as I recall, and I believe that the Town Pension fund is SELF-FUNDED not by tax dollars and is fully funded.... Black Rock Turnpike and Exxon... well, that had nothing to do with the Fiscal Officer or finances, that was the elected ZBA. Oh, and the "term for allowing town employees to contribute $35/wk towards health benefits" and the "no lay-off clause in PW's contract" that's called "Union Negotiations" which YOU, the RTM approved. So, point the finger at yourself. You approved these items, and now want to make up for it in one swoop. It doesn't work like that. Why not look at what went wrong with the Revaluation? Do the market values support what the hired guns claim properties are worth... NOOOOOOOO WAYYYYYYYY.
Bob MacGuffie May 23, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Carol - thanks for trying to turn things around. Any management team that can't deal with a less than half of one percent decrease in a budget request shouldn't be called a management team. The tax & spenders are driving us to bankruptcy on the municipal, state and national level. There's no more money and the sooner the tax & spenders realize it and act accordingly, the more manageable will be the financial crash for which we are all heading.


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