For weeks leading up to the Feb. 12 Board of Selectmen meeting, it appeared that the 2014-15 budget had its full support.
When the meeting day arrived, however, Democratic Selectmen Kip Hall and Reilly Tierney told their colleagues they would not support the proposed increase to the budget.
"I don't dispute, frankly, any of the arguments that were presented for improvements that are needed or the continued investments to maintain things that we already have," Hall said. "But the issue is, at what price for the taxpayers? Those who speak to me say they can't tolerate a 5 percent tax increase. I'm going to have to vote against the budget."
The proposed town-side budget is $44,685,190, which includes $11.7 million for debt service and $2 million for capital items, and is a 5.22 percent raise over the 2013-14 budget. The proposed municipal budget is $132,821,157, a 5.6 percent increase over 2013-14.
At the end of the evening, the five selectmen unanimously approved the budget, but not before considerable debate.
Tierney and Hall's greatest points of contention were an upgrade to the emergency services radio and the addition of a civilian dispatcher to the emergency communications center.
Republican Selectman Gerald Nielsen said he was "disappointed" to hear that Hall and Tierney would be voting against the budget.
"We've spent several weeks here working on every single line item, talking to every department head and looking and uncovering every stone," Nielsen said. "We've discussed every potential savings that has been presented to the board and determined if it was a savings we could take or if it would be a detriment to the town."
Hall said several taxpayers spoke to him about their inability to handle the tax increase that will be needed to pay for the 2014-15 budget and that several have mentioned moving out of town. They are, he said, senior citizens and those who have not recovered from the 2008 economic crisis.
"If we have a 3-2 vote, there's no way we can defend this budget to the Board of Finance," Republican Selectman Susan Marks said. "I want to hear what it is people are willing to forgo. I know people say they don't want their taxes to go up, but they aren't saying what they're willing to lose."
Tierney said he didn't believe adding a civilian dispatcher to the emergency communications center was a priority for 2014-15. The Police Department requested $92,000, which includes the salary and benefits, for one person. The employee, who would have to be trained, would man the phones and front desk in the center and dispatch police, fire and emergency medical services units. Police officers now handle those duties.
"When we take something on, what are our embedded costs for next year?" Tierney said. "If I thought it was a 5-percent increase this year, leading to a 3-percent increase next year, it would be a lot easier to say we need to take our medicine. But I don't see any of that. I just see higher costs going forward."
He also said he didn't believe adding a dispatcher would make the town safer, just that it would provide an alternative way to complete administrative duties at the Police Department.
The majority -- or 3.7 percent -- of the budget increase would pay for contractual obligations and health insurance.
"We've been trying to find tangible cuts and modifications, but I can understand why you feel pressured on a philosophical basis to not vote on the budget at a certain percent increase," Stevenson said. "There's a majority of things that we wanted to fund that you didn't. I don't believe in the philosophy of voting on principal. You may, I don't.
"This is the Board of Selectmen's budget, this isn't the first selectman's budget, not the town administrator's budget -- the Board of Selectmen's budget," Stevenson said. "We should be able to scrutinize the budget as a board unanimously and present this budget to the Board of Finance."
Tierney presented a list containing $1.1 million in potential cuts, which he felt could lower the budget increase.
Aside from the list Tierney provided, Stevenson said she didn't "hear any other suggestions of cuts that would have reduced the increase that we're looking at. I didn't hear any other ideas from anyone else on this board for ways to make substantive change to the 4.64 percent (increase to the operating budget.)"
Setting the town budget, Stevenson said, is the Board of Selectmen's "greatest responsibility."
Tierney said people in Darien did not vote for him to approve a budget he did not support.
Stevenson responded, "What I'm asking you to do is to dialogue and negotiate with the rest of the Board of Selectmen to come to a budget that we all can feel comfortable one way or another voting for. I don't think it's a responsible thing to vote against a budget if you haven't put forward substantive suggestions on how to change it."
The Republican selectmen offered their reasons for why they support the budget.
"I'm not happy we have an increase, but I think we have worked hard to come up with what I think is a responsible budget," Nielsen said.
Marks referred to the town's operating budget as "skin and bones."
"I don't know where any more money can come from," Marks said. "I think we've asked for a lot of departments to operate by the skin of their teeth."
After the discussion, the board unanimously approved the proposed budget, but cut the $92,000 request for the civilian dispatcher position -- which reduced the budget increase by .029 percent.
"The reality check for us is that the hard work we've done is somewhat moot given the increases happening in the Board of Education," Stevenson said.
The Board of Education is recommending a proposed $88.1 million budget, which is a 5.9 percent increase over 2013-14.
The Board of Finance will consider both budgets on March 10, followed by the Representative Town Meeting on May 5.
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