May 22, 2013
Written by The Ridgefield Press
Monday, 07 November 2011 16:07
Schlumberger, the library, debt, budgets, priorities — serious issues face the town and selectmen candidates staked out their positions in response to questions from The Press.
Five candidates are competing for four open Board of Selectmen seats in Tuesday’s town election. The race features four incumbents — Republicans Andrew Bodner and Maureen Kozlark, and Democrats Barbara Manners and Di Masters — and an unaffiliated petitioning candidate, Jan Rifkinson, who has regularly attended and voiced opinions at selectmen’s and other town meetings in recent years.For first selectman, Democratic incumbent Rudy Marconi will be on the ballot unopposed, so he was not asked to answer the questions.
The questions and answers the candidates provided, within word limits, follow.
What would your top five priorities be as a selectman?
Manners: Schlumberger, Schlumberger, Schlumberger.
Revisiting a possible regulation to restrict the ground floor of Main Street to retail businesses.
Encouraging Branchville’s planned growth to bring more retail and commercial to Ridgefield.
Ensuring the preservation of essential services that relate to townspeople’s health, safety and welfare.
Maintaining Ridgefield’s character and charm.
Kozlark: To sustain and improve Ridgefield’s residents’ quality of life.
To deliver services within our budgets to provide a high quality education.
To preserve our small town historical charm while adding to the commercial tax base.
To continue efforts in maintaining infrastructure.
To work closely with town organizations on environmental/conservation initiatives.
Rifkinson: Greater government transparency.
Develop cost center accounting for every agency, property, charity and leisure pursuit.
Hire a professional labor relations firm to negotiate all labor contracts with Board of Finance consultation.
Replace agency wish lists with creative long-term planning
Strategic economic development must become a priority to help homeowners.
Bodner: Maintain the current level of municipal services and high quality educational school system, finish negotiating new labor contracts with health care and pension changes per fire contract, adequately address road and other infrastructure needs, and prevent high density housing at Schlumberger. And, of course, keep taxes reasonable.
Masters: I want to continue to help lead Ridgefield through these economically challenging times. I remain committed to preserving the quality of life that brings and keeps us in Ridgefield, through economic development and long-range planning, Schlumberger property, balance services and budgets, investment in our kids and community.
With close to $99 million in outstanding debt, where do you stand on prospective additions to the debt burden like $7 million to buy the Schlumberger property and perhaps $5 million toward the library’s $20-million expansion?
Manners: The Schlumberger acquisition is a financially smart move. The character of the town in future years is heavily dependent on that property’s controlled development. Forty-five acres in the town’s center for future commercial, residential, and municipal needs enables us to plan, not merely to react. The library should be decided at referendum.
Kozlark: The Schlumberger property is 45 acres centrally located which is serviced by town water and sewer. It has the potential of being developed as a high-density residential parcel. If this occurs there would be a significant strain on town services. I feel it is important for the town to purchase and control the development of this property.
The library building is in need of mechanical repairs so the town will have to spend money on the building under any scenario. An investment toward a new building makes sense with most of the cost borne by private donations.
Rifkinson: Our financial discussions must be long term, complete, transparent and anchored in Ridgefield’s economic reality.
Currently we are one of Connecticut’s most indebted towns. With no future capital debt (an impossibility), the $99 million we now owe can’t be paid off before 2031.
So here’s where I stand:
Ridgefield should increase its debt beyond the norm only as a last resort and only for something that would otherwise endanger the entire community.
The Schlumberger proposal presents that possibility but the library expansion certainly does not so I would not support a $5-million gift for its expansion at this time.
Bodner: The library has a leaking roof and other major structural issues that the town must address. If, for the same town cost of band-aiding the problems and still having a substandard facility, $15 million of private donations allows the construction of a brand new library without increasing the annual operating expenses, then I support the initiative.
Leaving 45 acres of developable high density housing in the center of town is risky. Assuming that Schlumberger takes responsibility for the environmental issues, I support the purchase. Additionally, I believe that most of the purchase price can be recovered through controlled land sales.
Masters:The 45-acre Schlumberger property with town water, sewer and access to town assets is ideally suited for many tax positive development opportunities if the town acquires the property and is then able to deed restrict and guide the development of this centrally located acreage. Unbridled development on 45 acres in the center of Ridgefield with many hundreds of additional cars will dramatically change the business as usual in Ridgefield into the future. Daily business will forever be less convenient if the highest density is realized on that parcel. I support the purchase of Schlumberger. Library has done a great job.
What do you think the town should do about roads like many of those in Ridgefield Lakes that are technically private but function as public streets?
Manners: Ridgefield provides some maintenance and plowing on the private roads which have never met town standards and were constructed to be private. Bringing them to code requires vast sums for roadwork as well as legal costs associated with “taking” footage from people’s lawns. It would be better if homeowners through the Lake Association were to assume responsibility for bringing their roads to code. Then Ridgefield could then adopt them and all maintenance associated with them.
Kozlark: The Board of Selectmen have asked the head of our highway department to update us on the status of repairing our existing roads, number of miles of private roads in town, the current condition of these private roads and the estimated dollars needed to address this situation. After I have all this information, I will be able to make an informed decision about maintenance of these private roads.
Rifkinson: This problem is the result of inconsistency.
Only public roads should be serviced at taxpayer expense. That includes patching, gutter work, snow removal and bus service.
Because of a lack of transparency, some private roads have received town services in the past which are now threatened. Residents on these roads are confused and frustrated.
The selectmen must clarify the inconsistency and decide to adopt those private roads or charge for the services provided to them.
Bodner: Assess what the cost of upgrading the private roads into public roads would be, and then see whether a cost-sharing arrangement could be negotiated with the homeowners; otherwise, just maintain the status quo. Any change in the status quo needs to be fair to the residents who live on the private roads, as well as to those whose tax burden could be affected and do not.
Masters: Many of the roads may be too narrow to be classified as public roads. After a thorough investigation of ownership, there should be a maintenance plan established. For those roads determined to be under the jurisdiction of the town or still in question, I recommend exploring the scenic road option road for those very narrow roads which do not meet town standards. This would minimize cost, preserve neighborhoods and allow repairs to proceed.
The budget approved last spring was $124.5 million, a 1.5% spending increase that required a 1% tax increase. What are reasonable amounts for next year’s town and school budgets? Where should town should spend more or less?
Manners: Many people in town, possibly more than last year, are suffering from the continued recession and high unemployment. It is incumbent upon the BOS to keep taxes as low as possible while adequately addressing the health, safety, and welfare of our residents and the town’s future. Re the schools’ budget: It is up to the BOE to give us a number and for us then to make a recommendation after reviewing the essential needs of all town departments. Clearly our roads need maintenance and our emergency services need well-functioning equipment. These are the first priorities re town operations.
Kozlark: During these difficult economic times, we need to send to the voters a budget that maintains our town’s strong financial condition and also provides the level of town and school services that those voters require. As a community, we cannot stand still. We must develop a budget that supports controlled improvement and growth. This can be achieved through tough contract negotiations and finding maximum efficiencies in all operations. We need to make the thoughtful decisions. And we need to remember that Ridgefield is our home and the quality of life that brought us here must be preserved.
Rifkinson: Budgets have many moving parts. To quote “reasonable” budget numbers now would be a politically driven guessing game which is not my forte.
However, this important question should be asked and answered before labor negotiations begin, not before an election. That’s because three-quarters of our entire budget consists of labor costs. And to improve those numbers, I believe the entire negotiating process should be revamped so all labor negotiations are performed exclusively by a professional labor relations firm.
Currently, I am not persuaded that we budget efficiently. Until I am, I will be skeptical at budget time.
Bodner: The economy is worse, taxes are higher, state aid to Ridgefield is lower, and long-term prospects for Connecticut are bleak – I think the goal for this year should be the same as last year, a 1% or less property tax increase. How the additional dollars, if any, are divided between the town and school budgets will depend on the priorities that are developed from the budgeting process.
The town cannot continue to neglect its infrastructure needs, which means a commitment to annually pave roads, repair roofs, and insure that essential emergency equipment is maintained and replaced as needed.
Masters: Each year the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education present the town and school budgets respectively, which each board believes meets the needs of Ridgefield. Ultimately the responsibility for setting the size of each budget falls to the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance monitors tax receipts, projects future tax receipts, and weighs the ability of the taxpayers to absorb any tax increases. I have always viewed my job as selectman not to set the size of the budget but to balance the needs of all Ridgefielders, as much as possible, while living within our means.
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