State of the town
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson expects town leaders to juggle serious challenges in 2016, such as keeping taxes manageable and providing services, while grappling with commercial and residential redevelopment and capital projects.
In her state of the town address before the Darien Representative Town Meeting at Town Hall Monday night, Stevenson said a planned Baywater Properties project of a section of downtown near Ledge Road and similar residential and commercial projects in Noroton Heights hold a range of benefits but also present accompanying needs such as expanded infrastructure and facilities.
Land use officials are entering the last phase of updating the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, a tool that should help guide attendant infrastructure expansions to provide energy and if necessary more space at schools.
“The town will need to partner with developers and the state to expand and update the town’s infrastructure and work has already begun to bring natural gas to neighborhoods and town facilities and discussing bringing underground power lines into some of the areas of new development,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson, and other key town leaders speaking Monday night, painted a picture of Darien as flourishing but with significant concerns.
Under the leadership of Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, the town’s school district has made key moves in important areas, including a primary commitment to revamp the quality and oversight of special education programs, Board of Education Chairman Michael Harman said.
Brenner, who joined the district in July, has begun to develop new policies in response to two years of financial and administrative turmoil that has left parents of special education students demanding changes. In 2013, after a group of parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, an internal investigation found administrators and teachers had systemically broken education laws by illegally altering and paring back individualized education plans for special education students without consultation with parents.
In the case of some students, the district was also found to have received reimbursement for services not provided or documented.
Services provided and their related costs are now being better tracked by the software program EZ-Track, Harman said, and Brenner has established more structured communication between teachers and parents about individualized education plans to step up services if needed.
“The district is continuing to move beyond compliance toward best practices,” Harman said.
A facilities study by consultant Milone and McBroom to be presented in January is expected to recommend solutions including expansions or new building projects, Harman said.
“At present the district has very limited ability to deal with enrollment growth without addressing elementary class size policy or the use of aging portables,” Harman said. “… All indications are that any recommended course of action will include some kind of facility project or significant capital expenditures.”
Being the best
Darien should be an example to other municipalities in the state in terms of maintaining fiscal responsibility while sustaining service levels, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodsky said.
While town residents would not embrace stripping back essential services, the town can keep in good fiscal shape by focusing on the long-term value of doing capital projects right, managing staffing levels, and not shy away from consolidating town and Board of Education functions when possible.
“We’re not going to under-invest in schools or neglect roads or infrastructure or put up with substandard town facilities or parks,” Zagrodsky said. “Combine that with strong unions and state-mandated spending, it means there is not a whole lot we can do or would want to do to bend the government cost curve in a real way.”
Zagrodsky questioned whether value engineering and an overemphasis on controlling costs has resulted in the town facing a need for classroom space despite spending more than $100 million to overhaul Darien High School and build a new Tokeneke School.
“We focused on cost and didn’t do enough to make sure we wouldn’t end up with inadequate capacity,” Zagrodsky said.
In a similar vein, the town needs to set a high standard for evaluating contractors on low-bid projects, which contributed to more than $1 million in cost overruns in the long-debated Shuffle project, Zagrodsky said, a valuable project that involved swapping locations of the Board of Education to a former library at 35 Leroy Ave., clearing space at Town Hall to be remodeled into the Mather Center, a combination senior and community center. The initial contractor involved in the project, Dappreio Construction and Development, resulted in extra costs.
Stevenson agreed with Zagrodsky’s assessment that the town needs to focus on hiring the right firms to do projects.
“History shows that on more than one occasion we lost sight of long-term cost efficiency to satisfy a short-term budget goal,” she said. “… I urge us to adopt a much longer-term vision when constructing or renovating our schools or other facilities. High quality construction by dependable contractors and building flexibility into a facility design should be a priority even if it costs a little bit more up front.”
Zagrodsky said the decision to hire new police officers and other town workers should be painstaking because of the long-term pension impact town workers carry.
“We need to pay to attract and retain top talent especially given the cost of living in this area, I get that,” Zagrodsky said. “But when it comes to adding talent we should hold such decisions to a very high standard. People should say when it comes to staffing levels ‘No one manages them better than Darien.’ ”