Leaders discuss 2009, look forward to 2010
Leaders in Darien town government took a look back at 2009 and glimpsed into 2010 during the annual State of the Town Meeting at Town Hall on Monday night.
He reviewed significant actions taken in 2009, inlcuding the opening of the new Darien Library in January, the approval of an application for redevelopment of the Allen O'Neill housing and the approval of temporary portable lights for both DHS and DJFL sports teams.
"In 2009, the Commission used the downturn of the economy as an opportunity for some long-range planning," Spain said. "After spending significant time on flooding and drainage issues, the Commission adopted stringent stormwater management regulations."
Spain also reported that P&Z had modified zoning regulations regarding signage, created Commerical Design Guidleines and adopted Inclusionary Zoning Regulations, which require "those constructing more than five units at a time to either construct some affordable housing or put equivalent funds into an Affordable Housing Trust Fund."
Looking ahead, Spain said P&Z expects to see several new retail and restaurant tenants downtown in 2010. He also said the commission expects to rule on a pending application to convert an office building at 397 Post Road into apartments, some of which will be affordable.
First Selectman David Campbell also addressed the issue of affordable housing in his first State of the Town speech.
"Because of the Inclusionary Zoning regulation that took effect in May, we expect to reach the 2-percent moratorium level if the Garden Apartments project is approved in January. This gives us four years free from predatory developers to seek a better solution for Darien to this law," Campbell said.
Affordable housing has become a "hot-button" issue in Darien, due to mandates from the state. Other controversial issues that stem from the state government include flooding and unfunded school mandates, he said.
"In order to help fix the flooding problems in Noroton Heights, we relinquished control of the solution to the DEP. The result is the state-designed `Baker Woods Flood Mitigation Project' that permanently alters one of our few town parks. This is a poignant example of what happens with the loss of local control. Even our own EPC was not allowed to weigh in on the harm to Baker Park," Campbell said. "It is clear that residents were very unhappy with DEP's plan."
The $87 million cut to school funding being discussed in the state legislature is another source of tension in Darien, a town that Campbell said devotes "close to 70 percent" of its budget to education.
Darien currently receives $1.6 million in educational aid from the state, a figure which translates to $347 per student "' the second lowest reimbursement rate in the state according to Campbell. In contrast, Norwalk receives $945 per student, while New Haven and Hartford receive $7,700 and $8,000 per student respectively, Campbell said.
"The first job of our community is to protect our citizens and educate our children," he told those in attendance.
Kim Westcott, the newly-appointed chair of the Board of Education reported that "the Darien School system is in excellent shape and remains one of the top in the state," in her first ever State of the Town address. She detailed enrollment numbers, which have climbed this year, and are expected to peak at 4,840 students in the 2010-2011 academic year.
"With 4,700 kids trying to do their best, you are bound to have many accomplishments," she said. One major accomplishment was the success of the 291 graduates in June of this year, 89 percent of which planned to attend four-year colleges. Additionally, three members of that class were recognized as National Merit Finalists, Westcott said.
Students also performed well outside of the classroom, she said, with 84 percent of the student body participating in at least one of the 63 atheltic teams representing 21 sports.
"Of the 32 Varsity teams, the Blue Wave brought home 10 state titles, four FCIAC titles and 10 FCIAC Divisional Championships. Four coaches were named `Coach of the Year.' For the fourth year in a row, the FCIAC Athletics' Cup was awarded to DHS as the top athletic program in the conference for 2008 to 2009," she said.
The district is currently trying to provide a wealth of opportunities to the students, while navigating through a conservative budget year.
"Given difficult times, the goal of the 2009-10 budget was to maintain the core educational program. Noteworthy reductions included deferring technology and equipment purchases, and accepting a freeze on administrative salaries. We accelerated the move to full day Kindergarten by a year which carried savings," Westcott said.
The Board of Education is currently projecting a deficit of $490,000 for the current academic year, due to an anticipated decrease in the Special Education Excess Cost reimbursement grant from the State of Connecticut, which the state projected it will only be able to fund at 70 to 80 percent, leading to a $600,000 to $900,000 decrease in the district's "revenue" for state and federally mandated expenses, Westcott said.
Spending has been restricted to what is necessary for instruction, she said.
While addressing the financial state of the town, Murry Stegelmann, chairman of the Board of Finance, began by reviewing the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2009.
According to Stegelmann, property taxes, which are "fairly predictable," account for 90 percent of Darien's total revenue. Building permit revenues were down 39 percent and real estate conveyance tax revenues were down 61 percent from the prior year, he said.
The year ended with a deficit of $1.5 million in the general fund, Stegelmann said.
The balance of the general fund, which Stegelmann said acts as a "rainy day fund" for the town, currently rests at 14 percent of expenditures.
"Several years ago this Board wisely adopted guidelines to keep this general fund balance between 8 percent and 12 percent of expenditures to prevent our town from having the wild swings that landed other towns into trouble. At this point, we still are above our guidelines. And as we look to the future, we are lucky to have that cash available," he said.
He then presented a five-year forecast to those in attendance, which featured a BOE operating budget that accounted for 64 percent of total expenditures.
"On the positive side, total enrollment over the next five years is projected to be relatively flat. This is substantially different from the 13 percent increase in enrollment that we experienced over the past five years," he said. However it also included the terms of labor contracts "that were negotiated and approved in better economic times."
On the selectmen side of the budget, Stegelmann said his board "have assumed that the $38 million of spending on Weed Beach, the Police Station and the various flooding projects that have been deferred will be resumed on July 1... The deferral of capital projects has allowed us to reduce that outstanding bonded debt of the Town of Darien to approximately $90 million at June 2009, after peaking at more than $100 million in January of 2008."
He predicts a mill-rate increase of 8.79 percent, which he said the board believes Darien taxpayers will not find acceptable.
In closing, he said, "almost every one of us is being hit very hard personally by the current turmoil in the financial markets. For the sake of those who have lost their jobs this past year, or have seen their net worth plummet, or can't sell their house, each of us in elected office needs to be diligent in trying to deliver the services of government in the most cost effective way in the upcoming year."
The event was held at an RTM meeting, during which the RTM approved the acquisition of 33 Cherry Street, to raze the home located on the property and convert the parcel into open space. The RTM approved the purchase with 79 votes for the proposal, four against and three abstentions.
Additionally, six new members were sworn into the RTM at the beginning of the meeting, following caucuses in Districts I and II. Members of District I elected Timothy D. Schwarz to fill a vacancy in their district. Members of District II elected Shelley A. Carder, Michael A. Harman, Kirk P. Hoffman, Spencer J. McIlmurray and Cecelia Mundt to fill the the five vacancies in their district.