Tia Whinery and her husband searched all over Fairfield County for a place to live when a job opportunity opened in Stamford several years ago, including in Darien, Westport, Rowayton and Weston.
Yet the young couple moved here because they were “so impressed with the quality, culture and class sizes of the New Canaan schools as well as the variety of programs that are offered, so that kids with different interests and abilities can fully participate in the school community,” Whinery recalled Tuesday night.
“We couldn’t be happier with our experience so far with the schools,” she said during a public hearing on the budget during the Town Council’s regular meeting. “With that in mind, I would be curious to ask the real estate agents in town how many homes they sell to people who do not have children school age or younger. I would guess that only people who are buying in this town who do not have children at home are downsizing from a house they currently own in New Canaan. The growth of this town rests on continuing to be attractive to young families moving out of New York City or relocating from other parts of the country, as well as moving from nearby towns like Stamford or Norwalk, which they do for our schools. Our commute is not the best compared to Greenwich or Darien, but our community is strong and engaged, and our schools are second to none.”
She was one of two dozen residents who addressed New Canaan’s legislative body during an emotionally charged, at times contentious 3.5-hour meeting at Town Hall—many of them, like Whinery, asking the Council to preserve the Board of Ed’s request for a 1.86% spending increase for next fiscal year.
Others called for even more fiscal restraint in spending across the entire town, including the schools, especially in light of changes coming out of Hartford that could hit New Canaan and much of the county particularly hard.
New Canaan resident Stehpanie Radman said that “one of main ways that we are going to make and keep New Canaan attractive is to to have lower taxes than surrounding towns.”
“For years, our mill rate has been even with that of Darien,” she said. “Now, our mill rate will be much higher than Darien’s. It has been published in the news over and over for the last few months that New Canaan has, among other problems, the second-highest spending in the state and the highest debt ratio in the state. Here we are now looking to approve a budget seems to not take the seriousness of the current financial situation to heart. State and local financial conditions are very serious right now. Higher spending causes reduced property values, which causes higher taxes, which further reduces property values. It is a vicious cycle and it is time to right the ship.”
The Board of Finance prior to the start of the budget season set guidance of a total spending increase of $3 million—a figure read by many as a 2% increase, given an approximately $150 million budget. Last month, the finance board approved an overall operating budget increase of .02%, including spending plans from both the district and town, according to Budget Director Lunda Asmani. The Town Council is scheduled to vote Thursday night on a final budget for fiscal year 2020.
As Asmani noted during the meeting, the real estate portion of New Canaan’s Grand List—a tally of all taxable property in the town—is expected to decline by about $37.6 million following post-revaluation assessment appeals. Given New Canaan’s anticipated mill rate of 18.259, that makes for a reduction of about $672,000 in town revenue, Town Council Chairman John Engel said.
During their deliberations, Councilmen discussed Engel’s proposal to “start to think long-term” with caps of 1.5% to operating budget increases for both the town and Board of Ed, and an overall $13 million capital spending cap, over each of the next three years. They also discussed the need to look hard not only at district spending—the single largest area of the budget—but also at all town departments and municipal headcount, as well as town-owned property and individual capital items such as a $500,000 Fire Department rescue truck, $190,000 sander truck and $225,000 investment in The Playhouse, whose roof leaks.
The local legislators voiced how difficult it’s been to decide on town spending for next year—Councilman Penny Young called this “the worst budget I have ever gone through, in 21 years”—and some laid out their positions with respect to the Board of Ed’s funding request, and other matters that the Council will settle on Thursday.
Councilman Christa Kenin, who had served on the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee—an appointed body whose report identified more than 50 town-owned structures in New Canaan—said that “we have a lot of dusty buildings and they are not the reason families move to this town, and they simply cost too much to maintain.”
“I ran on education and I will stand behind it, so I’m not inclined to make further reductions at this time,” Kenin said.
The most-cited comments of the hearing came from state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125th), a New Canaan resident with kids in the system.
“As much as I hate to be bearer of bad news, the sky really is falling in Hartford,” he said.
The newly elected state legislature plans not only to reduce education-related aid to New Canaan, but also to increase the town’s costs, as well as imposing a statewide property tax and taking $5 million to $7 million that New Canaan has taken in through local motor vehicle taxes, O’Dea said. Asked whether New Canaan would be asked to fund teacher pensions, O’Dea said “it is coming” though it is “a matter of when and how much.”
“This actually is your easiest budget that you are going to have over the next four years,” he said. “Because I am telling you right now, Hartford is taking a lot more of our money going forward.”
O’Dea said he’s a fan of the New Canaan Public Schools administration and Board of Ed, and he stopped short of calling for the Town Council to reduce the spending increase that the district has requested.
“I’m not saying this because I want you to cut the Board of Ed budget,” he said. “What I am telling you is that this will get worse before it gets better and I would try and get to zero—I’m not saying with the Board of Ed, however you are going to do it.”
Referring to the idea of a 1.5% cap as a target, Councilman Steve Karl said that New Canaan, like any business or household, has “no reason not to plan.”
“We are not legislating 1.5%—we are saying stick to 1.5% for three years because we are sailing into dark clouds right now,” he said. “The only thing that is certain right now is uncertainty. It’s the only thing we really know. We can’t govern by fear, but I believe we all need to look one more time at tightening this thing up again. Because the taxpayers out there who are getting hammered expect us to do that. And when you look at the home values and you look at what is going on, this isn’t stuff we are making up. This is real.”
Karl, himself a 1980 New Canaan High School graduate, said he believed New Canaan had the best school system in the nation. That is “one thing we pride ourselves on.”
“We are not going to let New Canaan fall from that type of status, we are just not going to do it,” he said.
With that said, Karl also noted that at a recent budget hearing, the superintendent of schools said that if the district was asked to work with $300,000 that “we will figure it out.”
Though it may appear the Council makes decisions very late in the budget season, making adjustments to town spending is part of the responsibility and role of the legislative body, he said.
“This is what we do,“ Karl said. “Every year it is the same thing, it’s a process we go through… And we are always the one at the end that looks like the bad guys because we have to really take a look at this, because we are elected to look at it, and in year’s past it’s been a little easier. We haven’t had what is going on. But this is an extraordinary time, I believe, and if there is anything we can do to tighten it up, we have to do it. i really believe that.”
Some in attendance at the meeting became uncivil following a heated exchange between James Basch, a New Canaan resident and father of school-age children who has urged those on town funding bodies to rein in spending, and Councilman Tom Butterworth.
During his comments, Basch said that while all agree “everyone in here is invested in our kids’ education” and maintaining high standards, “where we disagree is on the drivers of that excellence.”
What’s key, Basch said, is “families and their involvement in their kids’ education.”
“Yes, a core group of excellent teachers and administrators which we have in New Canaan and should maintain, is important as well. We will likely always have that in the absence of forced school consolidation and continued home devaluation.”
Yet the local school district appears to be spending money where it doesn’t need to, Basch intimated.
“Do we need a public relations administrator right now?” he said. “Do we need a school climate officer and outside emotional intelligence consultants when we spend $2mm a year on counselors, social workers and psychologists? Do we need nine vice principals in five schools? How many vice principals did we all have growing up? Do we need to spend $340,000 a year on rent for a couple of dozen administrators and expensively rent a leased space when we have a wealth of town properties? Do we need to have expensive off-sites at Giovanni’s in Darien? Do we need to have a ratio of FTEs to students 10% higher than Darien, who produces better academic outcomes than us from eighth grade on?”
The Town Council asked those speaking during the public comment period to limit comments to two minutes, though the published agenda did not specify a limit. With the exception of O’Dea, who took questions from the Council, and, later, Board of Ed Vice Chair Dionna Carlson, most of those who took to the podium stayed near the two-minute limit or less than three minutes. Basch had been speaking for three minutes 14 seconds when Engel said, “We are running short on time.”
At four minutes 14 seconds, Butterworth said, “That’s four minutes, James. Twice what your colleagues have been given. Twice what your neighbors have been given. Are you more important than everybody else?”
This exchange followed:
Basch: “Tom, you’re unbelievable. Unbelievable, to let people go on…”
Butterworth: “How much longer do you want to go on, James?”
Basch: “It’s so inappropriate. You’re a Town Council member. You’ve got to remember that, Tom.”
Butterworth: “We have rules here. You don’t choose to follow them. That’s alright.”
Basch: “Tom you are preposterous, just stop…”
When Basch had been speaking for four minutes 56 seconds, some of those in attendance began coughing, clapping and whistling. At five minutes 11 seconds, someone started playing the “Jeopardy” theme song from a mobile device, and others followed with their own songs from smartphones as Basch wound down.
During the last half of Carlson’s four minutes, 37 seconds at the podium, at least one of those in attendance also appeared to make noises with a phone, though no Councilmen commented.
Carlson directly addressed comments made by Joseph Riker and Basch. To Riker’s question about what a 1.5% percent cap would mean for the schools, Carlson noted that the figure is below the current inflation rate of 2.6%.
“That will equal to over $1 million a year in funding for our schools,” she said. “Eighty-two percent of our expenses are fixed contractually or are healthcare expenses which, as any of us who buy health insurance [knows], is significantly higher than 1.5%. I have been in budget years when it’s sometimes close to 11%. We were really fortunate this year to have it come down, because of good things the district has done and partnered with employees to bring costs down.”
To Basch’s assertion that parents are a key driver of success, Carlson said she agreed that “parents are a big reason that students in this community do so well.”
“But the reason those parents, the type of parents that we get in this community are here, is because we fund our education,” she said. “And if we continue to strip away at our education, we will lose the type of parents that move into a community for its educational experiences.”