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RTM Scrutinizes Darien Budget Before Approving It

James Palen addresses the Darien Representative Town Meeting on the 2014-15 budget.
James Palen addresses the Darien Representative Town Meeting on the 2014-15 budget. Photo Credit: Casey Donahue

DARIEN, Conn. -- Darien's approved budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year includes funds to manage town facilities and better handle special education. But it was met with some resistance by members of the Representative Town Meeting before it was approved Monday night.

The $133 million budget includes $44.96 million for town expenses and $88.14 million for school spending. The mill rate will increase from 13.17 mills to 15.01 mills.

The town budget was approved by the RTM by a vote of 54 to 21, with one abstention. The school budget was approved by a vote of 62 to 12, with one abstention.

Among the town initiatives funded are a new civilian dispatch service for police and the outsourcing of the management of town facilities to a private company. The town is also investing in a parking garage feasibility study, and setting aside money for employee union contract negotiations in the summer.

Much of the increase in school spending is related to contractual increases in teacher salaries, as well as the difficulties in special education over the past year. These include the hiring of a human resources director and seven special education facilitators to ensure the district is in compliance with state and federal regulations. The district will also be conducting a facilities study to address rising enrollment.

Before approving the budget, members of the RTM's Finance and Budget Committee endorsed a reduction in the town budget of $200,000.

"Members of the committee wanted to send a message to the RTM that they do not think the continued increase in spending and taxation we've seen in recent years will be acceptable to our residents, and could have a longer term negative effect on the value of Darien real estate relative to other towns," said James Palen, chair of the Finance and Budget Committee.

"It's an onerous amount of money," said William Ball. "We feel that cuts needs to be made. It 's more symbolic, it's not a lot of money, they could probably transfer it out of the General Fund and they wouldn't have to cut anything."

After the town counsel said a cut could not be made without selecting a specific line item to reduce, members suggested actions such as an across-the-board cut of 1 percent, or cutting $200,000 from the Darien Library budget. Both motions failed.

Some said they were not given ample time to propose changes to the budget before the vote.

"The timeline that we have doesn't really allow for much debate. It seems like it's being shoved down our throats," said Nancy Coyle-Downs.

"I don't think there was enough participation this year from members of the RTM," said Board of Finance Chair Liz Mao. Nobody spoke out during the budget meetings, she said, and she did not receive any feedback during the budget process.

During committee meetings, the RTM's Parks and Recreation Committee voted almost unanimously against the budget, citing a lack of funding for sand at the town beaches.

"Let us not forget that our beaches in town experienced two major storms in the last few years, therefore the need for sand replacement is imperative," said Parks and Recreation Committee Chair Cheryl Russell.

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