Earlier this evening I had the honor of being sworn in as a member of the Board of Finance for our town. After four years of service on the Representative Town Meeting, this will certainly be a change of pace but is one that I am excited about. I wanted to take a moment to now, post-election, publish to my constituent site a copy of the two questionnaires that I responded to earlier this year. Continuing to guide Fairfield through the downturn and towards a prosperous future is a task that no single individual or board can do on its own. My hope is that by publishing these, others will not only get a better understanding of my thought process and suggested solutions, but also that all will be able to build upon these as we work together in the coming years.
Fairfield Taxpayer BoF Caucus Questions
1. By what standards do you think the financial wellbeing of a town like Fairfield should be measured?
If elected to the Board of Finance, I will work with others to see the BoF take the lead in establishing a core set of benchmarking tools along with key communities to use as comparisons. A major issue that I have found over the past few years has been that each town body and department seems to benchmark against different items often choosing what helps its case. This isn’t helpful for anyone and is not overly complicated to change.
Here are several ideas that I have as to how the Town might want to benchmark going forward. To start off we should always strive to maintain our Aaa credit rating. (Also referred to as “AAA” or “Triple-A”..) That being said there are key areas that we must ensure we are meeting as decisions are made. It is helpful to next begin comparisons to our peers — however, this needs to be our actual peers and not just other towns in Fairfield County such as Greenwich. I also look to see if we are affordable and if decisions are being made that will in the long term add to the desirability of our town which will also help increase property values.
2. Based on the standards you think are most appropriate, what is your assessment of the Town’s current financial wellbeing, beginning with a letter grade from A+ to F?
Our town is still seeing a net influx of new families moving in and property values are recovering in most areas outside of the high end of the market. Additionally, the Town’s reserves and pension accounts are also improving because of more favorable market conditions that have collectively strengthened our AAA credit rating. At the same time, however, the picture is not all rosy. Some of the trouble for us comes simply from being in Connecticut where job creation is virtually non-existent and taxes are sky high — is that our fault? Not entirely, but it is something we as a town must live with. On the troubling side locally, we are having trouble keeping taxes low while at the very least maintaining current service levels. For reserve levels – a key component of our credit rating – our town is behind many other communities and is also finding it difficult to balance low tax increases with increasing reserve levels.
3. In what ways, if any, do you think the Town’s financial well being could be improved?
While the credit rating agencies may be okay with us having annual bond payments of roughly 10% of the Town’s overall that does not mean we should be pushing our credit limit to the edge particularly since all indicators are that interest rates are headed up. We need to focus on increasing the commercial tax base to reduce the burden on the residential taxpayer, but we should not use any increased revenue to necessarily spend more. The reduction in size of government is key, privatization and use of non-profit partners will reduce current operating costs and they do not come with long term liabilities.
4. By what standards do you think a town like Fairfield should decide how much it should spend, both operating expenditures and capital expenditures?
Our town needs not just a five year plan but at a minimum a twenty year long range plan. It should be reviewed and updated yearly and everything spent within the budget or through bonding must fit within those parameters. That plan must not only hold the line on spending but also must sort out how to ensure our infrastructure is properly maintained as to not cause additional expenses. The rate of inflation was a much talked about figure and it is a key benchmark to consider, but we need to be careful to not box ourselves in because there are always unknowns. We also must work to keep spending low during the “good times” when even the rate of inflation can be much higher than the often talked about 2% figure. High flying during the good times almost always seems to bring undue pain to our community during economic downturns. History often repeats itself and we have a responsibility to learn from history.
5. Based on the standards you think are most appropriate, do you think Fairfield is spending too much, too little or about the right amount?
Too much is being spent by our town. We have tried for too long to be all things to all people and we are now paying that price as a community. There aren’t tens of millions in reductions that can be found, but there is certainly room for improvement. Additionally, we have redundancies and inefficiencies and until those are rooted out the answer is always going to be that we are spending too much. Once these areas are removed, the budget over the longer term will then need less of an increase as well which saves the taxpayers funds.
6. In what ways, if any, do you think that the money Fairfield spends could be better spent?
A key thing to remember here is that when cost savings are achieved it is not an excuse to then reallocate those funds to another area. So, if we are spending the taxpayers money more wisely, in the end that should result in lower tax needs. On many smaller bonded projects we are wasting taxpayer funds with interest. If a project is 150k, why are we not paying for it right away? Grouping it in with 10 other projects doesn’t make bonding something acceptable. That being said, the first area to immediately eliminate is small projects being bonded. Next, there should be a full review between the Board of Education and town departments on redundancies and the BoF is a logical board to take the lead. The BoF also needs to review the previous audit and begin seeking ways to push the administration to implement changes. To me though, one of the largest areas of improvement is technology. Improvements in this area can over time reduce employee count and can also as the town grows help keep those figures in place through productivity. These will not only save the taxpayers funds, be an improvement for the employees at work, but will also improve the way residents interact with the town.
7. By what standards do you think the performance of the BOF should be measured?
First they should at the very least meet their charter and statutory obligations. Next, within reason the board should live up to the expectations of the public on what their perceived role is. (This goes for all town boards and commissions and members.) Additionally, when campaigns come around, the individuals words must be tied back to how they act once elected. At election time these days you see candidates from both parties flock to call themselves “fiscal conservatives” of some sort but that must mean something. While some have questioned the true importance of the AAA rating and if even going one notch back would be all that bad, I do believe it is very important for our community and is a performance item that clearly must be included. To that extent, those involved in helping to maintain the rating including the current BoF deserve credit along with the taxpayers who have funded accounts required for that rating. I do believe that moving forward we must begin changing our path some to ensure the long term sustainability of that rating. As the expression goes..you can drive a car with your feet but that doesn’t mean that is the best way to do it.. We have gotten this far as a town, but with budgets increasing and reserves struggling to keep up, the BoF now must also be measured on many sustainability factors that as taxpayers salaries are often frozen and house values stagnant, will be increasingly difficult to do. The status quo for what is acceptable is forever changed and those elected this cycle must be able to not just be a part of that change by default but should be ready to embrace that change for the long term improvement of our town — it is clear that the taxpayers are expecting nothing short of that moving forward.
8. Based on the standards you think are most appropriate, what is your assessment of the performance of the BOF, beginning with a letter grade from A+ to F?
Reading my other responses, most people should likely have guessed this to be the range for my grading. Simply put, glad the BoF finally took more action this budget cycle but we waited far too long including through the previous administration’s years to see that take place. With so many one off items included (many of which brought much risk as well), it only creates questions about how substantial budgetary changes will occur moving forward. The shortsightedness of the Pequot reduction along with the handling of nonprofits in general was an embarrassment for the entire town. I personally am a big believer in privatization and partnering with nonprofits. As a Republican, I believe in smaller government and driving efficiencies. We need to look for more of these opportunities not less and certainly need to avoid turning away those that have been partners for many years. This is an area that I have written and spoken about at length previously and would be glad to speak with anyone about if they have questions about just how important of an area it is.
9. In what ways, if any, do you think that the performance of the BOF could be improved?
The Board of Finance needs to begin taking a stronger lead in the direction of the town. I have outlined below a new method for the budget but this can be applied to many other areas. If frustrated by the administration, it is time that other boards step in and with the exclusion of the executive powers of the town, the BoF working with the RTM could do great things for Fairfield. Both boards as of now are under Republican majorities which only makes this an easier task if the BoF chooses to not only come to the table in the next term but decides to take the lead. For individual members themselves there are some steps that if taken I believe will greatly improve the board’s engagement and performance within the town. The BoF should work together to make this happen. When elected to the BoF you are not just a “financier” sitting on an island. You are one of the top elected officials in town and with that comes great responsibility to be available to other boards and to advocate for the betterment of the town on a regular basis. Just to name a few examples this includes being present for major items and the budget at RTM meetings and this also means sometimes you even need to stop by a TPZ or ZBA meeting because without good commercial development the residential taxpayers will be shouldering all the burden. It should be noted though that each board has its own sovereignty that should be respected, but in the end we are one town that needs to work more closely together. And never lose sight of the fact that BOF members are ex-officio members of the RTM and as such they should be attending those meetings and be fully connected to the entire town on a highly localized basis.
10. If elected or reelected to the BOF, what will be your top three priorities on the first day of your new term and why?
Any new member of a town board would not be truthful if they said they could come right in and change the world on day one. I do believe, however, that I’ve been in government long enough yet also short enough to realize “the way it works” but also remember the way it “should” work. So, while I would seek to have these changes occur right away, something such as my budget plan may take more than one cycle to accomplish. Being a leader within the Republican RTM caucus that took the body from a rubber-stamp to deliberative board, I do feel I have the right mix of experience to change things for the better for our taxpayers.
1. Begin the slow but methodical process to deleverage Fairfield. We must reduce bonding and if the Board of Finance is where the broader conversation takes place then someone needs to be at the table advocating for significantly adjusting our appetite for debt. There are reasons to pay for things over time and others all at once and we’ve had some of those talks throughout town. However, our town consistently is pushing up against the 10% of overall budget maximum suggested debt service. Why is that? Why not 8% or even dare I suggest 6 or 7%? Let’s also not forget that as the budget increases, so does the dollar figure allowed for debt. All of this creates a very troubling cycle that keeps pushing the budgets higher. We are also ending the era of low interest rates and we must adjust our thinking before it is too late.
2. Advocate for a review and updating of the property assessment system and process in town well in advance of the next revaluation. The previous revaluation was a complete failure and the BoF has a responsibility per the charter to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Our entire system of budgets and taxation rests upon those being taxed having faith in the system. That faith has been severely breached and that cannot happen again.
[Fairfield Charter § 8.3. Board of Finance – Sec. D “D. Assessment system. The Board of Finance shall install and shall modernize from time to time a system by which equitable and just values of taxable property within the Town may be ascertained. The system shall provide, among other things, for the collection of data relating to each parcel of land and to each building within the Town and for the arrangement of such data in convenient and practical form for the use of the Assessor. The system may provide for the preparation and upkeep of tax maps and land maps, in the discretion of the Board of Finance.”]
3. Begin writing the next budget but by the BoF. Simply disagreeing with and then adjusting downward the First Selectman’s budgets is no longer good enough. Let the administration bring their budget and the BoF its. I will present my own budget built from scratch just as is done at the state and federal levels and by many other municipalities. Procedurally the BoF will be required to adjust up and down lines from the administration’s budget but that is a simple technical point I mention in advance for anyone who says “this isn’t how it works” when referring to my plan. I would hope that the full BoF embrace this as an opportunity to step away from the failed budgets of the past and take the lead in an area where there is clearly a leadership void in our community. The public, taxpayer groups, and of course other boards should have input as well and the process should be open. Hold budget hearings while compiling the budget not just a Q&A after the fact as to how the budget got to where it is. I’ve suggested this from the RTM but have been limited in even proposing it as that body can only reduce lines and cannot structurally change things. On the BoF I’m looking for the opportunity to be involved where those rules are different for the better.
In the end, I find myself deeply concerned that 6 years into the recession many town officials have begun to believe things are good enough to reactivate their penchant for spending. This level of spending unfortunately occurred too often on the BoF for many years. We are at an important inflection point as a community and I believe we must put forward the right candidates to bring about outside the box thinking and true change.
Fairfield League of Women Voters Questions
1. What special qualifications and experience would you bring to the office?
I have spent much of my time on the RTM building consensus to change the way town government is run and plan to bring that perspective to the BoF. My experience with small business and nonprofit management provides a deep understanding of driving efficiencies and maximizing every dollar. That background, coupled with my experience leading budget reduction efforts during my tenure on the RTM, provides for an effective mixture of experience and skills at this crucial juncture for our town.
2. What would you hope to have accomplished after your first year on the Board of Finance?
Three of my goals in the first year include introducing a zero-based budget alternative directly by the BoF (vs the current rollover method which nearly guarantees waste); implementation of a plan to actually lower the town debt load (currently once items are paid off, typically an even larger item is then added to our burden); and working with the board to release a comprehensive plan to ensure the property revaluation process is fair and devoid of political influences moving forward.