May 25, 2013
Written by Macklin Reid, Press Staff
Thursday, 13 October 2011 06:17
Buying Schlumberger is a goal that all five finance board candidates backed in the first debate of the political season — though one admitted the $7 million price left him uneasy.
All but one supported a town contribution to a library expansion project. But none liked the finance board’s work on the school budget last spring — a $850,000 haircut, trimming a 2.9% increase to 1.81%.
“A new library would be an asset to the town,” Republican candidate Steven Coury said, but he added: “I don’t think this is the right environment to build a new library.”With a crowd of about 70 packing a room at Founders Hall last Friday for the League of Women Voters debate, all the candidates were asked about a potential taxpayer contribution toward a $20 million library expansion.
Mr. Coury presented himself as a champion of reducing the town’s roughly $100 million in long term debt.
“$114 million in debt. That’s crushing. It’s about $14 million in debt service a year,” Mr. Coury said. “We really need to hold the line on debt issuances. It’s time we live within our means.”
He listed other multi-million-dollar proposals that could end up in the town’s long term capital budget — the Schlumberger land deal, a new police station, a possible gas line to the high school.
“We need to come up with a plan of what our priorities are,” he said.
Democrat Dave Ulmer, the lone finance board incumbent seeking re-election, disputed Mr. Coury’s assertion the town’s debt is $114 million.
“We have about $95 million in debt,” Mr. Ulmer said, adding that the borrowing stemmed mostly from the $90 million ‘school bundle’ and the $34 million Scotts Ridge Middle School, approved a little over a decade ago.
“We can finance both Schlumberger and the library without increasing our debt — we pay down $10 million a year,” he said.
Mr. Ulmer called the library “the most used asset in town.”
Democrats Paul Sutherland and Jessica Mancini agreed.
“The library is an asset to young and old,” said Ms. Mancini, a lifelong resident with two businesses in town.
“I absolutely believe in the near future we need to look at getting that library up to standard.”
“The town has a great asset in the public library,” Mr. Sutherland said. “The town has a great history of public private partnerships.”
He used a breakdown of numbers that has been talked of, though the library board had made no official request.
“If the library will come up with $15 million,” Mr. Sutherland said, “I believe the town would be well advised to come up with the remaining $5 million.”
Republican John Palermo, the other current school board member in the race, sounded a similar theme.
“I think the town really needs to consider strongly financing public-private partnerships,” he said. “The town needs the library — it’s on Main Street — it’s one of the best assets we have in town.”
The candidates showed varying degrees of support for the selectman’s plan to buy the 45-acre Schlumberger site for $7 million.
Ms. Mancini was fully behind the selectmen’s argument that the town should control growth by buying the site and reselling it with deed restrictions to limit density.
“Big cities were all Ridgefield — once,” she said. “Don’t we want to preserve what we love and what we all came here for? We absolutely want to control our destiny.”
John Palermo recalled that the town had passed up buying IBM’s land years ago. It fell into Eureka’s hands, prompting an eminent domain acquisition by the town — at more than the original price — to fend off a huge development proposal. The legal costs are still mounting.
“I do think the town needs to buy the property,” he said.
Paul Sutherland preferred the selectmen’s initial plan — buying in partnership with a private developer, with the town spending $4 million and keeping 30 acres, rather than $7 million for 45 acres.
“I thought the original proposal was a lot better,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting $7 million at risk.”
“I want to keep a check on the debt,” Mr. Coury said, but he could support borrowing for the Schlumberger purchase “if we as a community want to buy this property.”
Mr. Ulmer didn’t want the finance board to stand in the way of a referendum vote.
“We should be leaving these decisions to the voters of the town. We shouldn’t be nixing it,” he said.
The candidates were asked about the work last spring on the current school budget, when the finance board lowered the annual increase from the 2.9% sought by the Board of Education to 1.8%, a $850,000 trim that brought the budget to $79,213,000.
“It’s the Board of Finance’s role to come up with the tax rate. In this case they may have overstepped their bounds a little bit,” said Mr. Palermo. “It was just too low.”
A still-sitting school board member, Mr. Palermo reviewed all the effort made to control costs before the budget went to finance board — contracts with low raises, revised health insurance.
Mr. Coury agreed, saying the school board was elected to oversee education.
“They put together a responsible budget. I think the Board of Finance overstepped,” he said.
“I would have sent my personal recommendations, and passed it on to the voters.”
Ms. Mancini recalled being at the meeting where board of finance members — with the exception of Mr. Ulmer, who had dissented at length — had cut the school budget with little discussion and no engagement of pro-school parents who had petitioned, spoken at public hearings, turned out to see the decision meeting.
“For the Board of Finance to look down and not even make eye contact!” she said.
Mr. Ulmer said his finance board colleagues hadn’t looked closely at how the school board’s request stacked up against its expenses.
“The increase was less than the salary increase, which was contractual,” he said.
“What was left didn’t cover everything else...
“If you’d have listened, you’d have know it was an austerity budget.”
“We lost German in the middle school,” said Mr. Sutherland, another sitting school board member. “It really was a disinvestment in education in Ridgefield.”
|< Prev||Next >|