With the start of the 2013-14 budget process and the First Selectman’s ‘State of the Town’ address, we think it is an appropriate time for us to comment as well on the town’s financial situation.
The quality of life in Fairfield continues to make it one of the country’s most desirable places to live. However, high property taxes and a high cost of living are making it less and less affordable, both in absolute terms and relative to nearby communities. In fact, the universal message we hear from citizens is that the Town needs to slow the rate of spending because at the current trajectory, they will no longer be able to afford to pay their property taxes within just a few years.
Unfortunately, Fairfield is so burdened with increasing contractual and financial obligations that it is simply impossible to balance the budget and maintain the same level of services without increasing the tax burden on citizens. This year will be no different.
Recent town meetings have been informed that certain “budget drivers” for the next fiscal year will continue to force significant increases related to retiree benefits and employee health care costs. Though the numbers are preliminary, it appears that just to maintain the current level of services, the budget would need to increase by a larger amount than we have seen in over a decade, continuing a long trend of increases at more than twice the rate of general price level inflation. With what we believe is an already lean operating budget, the only real option Town officials have in order to provide meaningful relief to taxpayers is to reduce and/or eliminate some current services.
Republicans have won a majority in the RTM for two consecutive terms presumably because taxpayers understood that we recognize that it is time to do something about the rate of spending and tax increases. We often feel like we were handed the impossible job of putting the toothpaste back in to the tube. If it's not impossible, then it's too messy and ugly for anyone else to accept.
High property taxes are a serious problem for our entire community that will only intensify if the budget continues to grow at the current rates. Ask anyone in real estate and they will tell you that high property taxes are turning off prospective buyers and hurting property values. Higher-end homeowners, who have the most to save by doing so, are moving to other towns, finding a similar quality of life, the same or even better quality schools, a better investment return, and lower tax rates.
This exodus shifts a growing share of the tax burden onto lower-end homes whose market value has been supported by their excellent cost/benefit ratio for people who have children in our public schools. Any benefits to the market value of Fairfield homes from our fine school system, amenities and natural resources are being eroded by the relentless, above-average increases in property taxes. It’s a downward spiral that if not addressed with both short-term and long-term solutions will lead our community into a new era of limitations that will be unimaginable to many today.
We realize that the news of significant increases in our “budget drivers” might lead the First Selectman to increase department budgets for the 2014 fiscal year by simply adding their cost on top of everything else. We believe the taxpayers of Fairfield will not accept that rationale. We believe the majority of citizens want their Town officials to evaluate the cost of specific services and take tough measures to reduce and eliminate those deemed to be “non-essential,” “under-utilized” and/or “over-subsidized” by taxpayers.
We also believe that taxpayers and Town employees need to recalibrate short-term expectations about the level of services the Town and the School System can afford based on our current economic realities. We believe it is the responsibility of Town officials from each body to lead that discussion throughout the budget process and to forge a consensus with one another and with taxpayers. Then Town officials need to take action.
Beyond looking at service reductions, the RTM just passed an expanded Tax Relief for Elderly and Disabled Homeowners Program, which was a helpful step in maintaining affordability for some of our citizens who are having difficulty staying in their homes. But, at the same time, we must be cognizant that we cannot solve Fairfield’s problems by reducing taxes for seniors and raising them even more for everyone else. The only long-term solution that works for everyone is to restrain the growth in our spending.
Accordingly, there is much more work to be done. We urge the First Selectman to continue to recalibrate labor agreements by requiring employees to contribute to their health care and other benefits at rates comparable to the private sector. We urge him to increase efforts to attract new businesses here to expand the commercial tax base and provide relief to residential taxpayers. We urge him to collaborate with the Superintendent of Schools and department heads to find ways to consolidate redundant functions.
Lastly, we owe it to taxpayers to show we are committed to reduce the growth of spending to no more than the rate of general price level inflation, and preferably lower, as long as general economic conditions continue to be as challenging as they have been since the Great Recession. We support and applaud similar efforts to control spending that are being proposed by members of the Board of Education who share our concerns. Despite tough times throughout the State of Connecticut and the nation as a whole, Fairfield’s spending over the last five years has risen 18.6 percent while the Consumer Price Index is up only 9.3 percent. How many Fairfield taxpayers have enjoyed an 18 percent increase in their disposable income since the peak for many in 2007-2008?
So we ask, on behalf of the taxpayers of Fairfield, that members of all bodies rededicate our efforts to deliver a cost effective, economically reasonable and restrained budget to the taxpayers. Rest assured that the Republican Caucus is fully committed to working tirelessly during the budget process with the First Selectman, members of other bodies, and members across the aisle in the RTM to see this through.
We look forward to a productive budget season and ask that all interested residents contact us to express their opinions. We thank First Selectman Tetreau and all other elected officials on various boards for their continued service to the Town. We wish our colleagues across the aisle a Happy New Year and we look forward to working with them over the remainder of our term to better serve the residents of our Town.
Lastly, we wanted to join the First Selectman in thanking all the town employees, emergency responders, local businesses and colleges, and volunteers who rose to the occasion in preparing for, coping with and recovering from Hurricane Sandy. There are countless stories that demonstrate the generous nature of our community. We also hope that those affected by Sandy are able to get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible.
Joseph J. Palmer, Majority Leader
Edward J. Bateson, Deputy Majority Leader