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Darien Selectmen approve 5.99% increase in town budget

Published 1:35 pm, Thursday, February 21, 2013
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Some Darien taxpayers may be upset to find that the 2013-14 town budget of $42,660,669, which has been put in front of the Board of Finance, does not include some capital projects, including the installation of new sidewalks.

However, cuts by the Board of Selectmen from the six-year capital plan, as well as others, were done to reduce the proposed town budget from a 7.14 percent increase to a 5.99 percent jump over the 2012-13 budget.

The changes represent $588,939 in total cuts from the originally proposed budget of $43,249,608.

Several of the selectmen were not pleased with the final outcome, but understood elements out of their hands contributed to the increase.

"There really are a number of things in this budget that we can't really control, and we're sort of responding to changes that need to be made," Selectman John Lundeen said, in reference to items such as an increase in staff positions to maintain town facilities and a 25 percent increase in health insurance spending.

"My frustration with this process is not that we all haven't tried to find places to cut our operating budget, which in particular is increasing $1.6 million this year, but it's our inability to do so," said Selectman David Bayne, who noted that last year he spoke out against a 6.5 percent increase, yet another 6 percent increase came before the board.

"The fact is most of these increases are due to contractual wage increases that we've agreed to with our unions, our insurance premiums are sky high and our energy costs are driving up the budget, and we just can't do anything with that."

Almost $2.2 million was cut from departmental requests, according to First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.

"And some of those cuts cut right to the bone," Stevenson said. "Year after year, we have asked departments to do so much more with less. We owe it to the taxpayers to provide the best service at the most cost-effective price."

Conversation turned to a discussion of sidewalks, as some selectmen felt that more progress should be made.

Until recently, a vocal group of residents have spoken in favor of installing sidewalks around town, especially Hoyt Street.

In November, and in light of the new sidewalk installation policy, Stevenson said she's asked Bob Steeger, director of public works, to take all of the proposed sidewalk projects and run them through the policy, which allows residents to petition the town for sidewalk additions and assigns a points system to prioritize where each request would fall on the sidewalk projects queue.

Steeger presented his results to the board in early February, but there was still a question if there was enough hard data about the proposed areas to make a true determination of which projects ranked higher than others.

The money for new sidewalk construction, $120,000, was cut from the capital projects.

"Darien is still growing, and as it grows it will need to become more pedestrian-friendly, so I think we will need to think about the new sidewalk construction, and we'll need to have a process for making that happen rationally and systematically over time," Lundeen said, lending support to the previously proposed idea of forming a sidewalk committee that would. "I think that if we're going to take the money out of the budget, the people that are involved in sidewalks really have a right to expect from us to really advance the process."

Stevenson felt the sidewalks were moving along at a steady enough pace, despite the fact that the cuts in projects were made.

"I'm very proud that we really took a crack at and are very close to a policy that will allow us to take the subjectivity out of new sidewalk decisions," Stevenson said.

"There's clearly more work to be done but we're making progress so that we can begin to fund some of these higher priority sidewalks."

The proposed budget will go in front of the Board of Finance starting Tuesday, March 5.

The public hearing on the proposed budget is Tuesday, March 12.

mspicer@bcnnew.com;203-972-4402;twitter.com/Meg_DarienNews