Republican candidates seek approval before caucus
Published 1:35 pm, Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Incumbent and petitioning candidates for Town Council and the Board of Education fielded questions about future tax growth, the town’s capital needs, and their willingness to trim costs during a Republican Town Committee forum Monday night.
After making three-minute opening statements, Town Council candidates showed the greatest divergence on the urgency of trimming town spending and limiting growth of the town’s mill rate.
There was little overt contention between the candidates during a wide-ranging discussion in which discussion of rising taxes, the town’s $90 million five-year capital plan blueprint, and the town’s educational spending often merged into general pledges to exercise fiscal reserve and maintain excellent services.
The New Canaan Republican Town Committee will pick an endorsed slate of candidates at a caucus at 7:30 p.m. July 21, at New Canaan High School, 11 Farm Road. All registered Republican voters may vote in the caucus.
On the budget
Current Town Council member Karl said the town has done a “great great job top to bottom keeping an eye on tax dollars,” limiting tax increases over the past eight budget years to an average of 3.12 percent.
Williams, another incumbent, said he was concerned about the town’s mill rate rising faster than other southwestern Connecticut towns during the 2015-2016 budget cycle, and that without appropriate restraint the town’s capital projects could add $60 million to the town’s budget in half a decade.
“If we stay on the current course you might think your taxes are OK today, but will they be OK when they are 50 percent higher six years from now?” Williams asked. “We’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle when we have a $200 million budget.”
Christa Kenin, a lawyer and petitioning candidate, said “taxes are about right,” and that New Canaan’s taxes still compared favorably with other towns such as Weston and Westport with higher mill rates.
Aguirre Ross, an architect, mentioned the need to manage infrastructure costs through more careful planning with a focus on maintenance over facilities expansions and new equipment.
“Not everything has to be new, things can be refurbished or reused,” Aguirre Ross said.
Asked the No. 1 issue or problem facing the town, four of the candidates touched on big ticket projects on the horizon to refurbish the New Canaan Library, repair Waveny House and the New Canaan Playhouse, and the proposed Saxe Middle School auditorium and classroom expansion.
“The capital plan doesn’t include Waveny House or the Playhouse or some other things,” Williams said.
Williams said the town had to focus on efficiencies such as combining Board of Education and town administrative functions.
“Now’s the time to hit the big red panic button on spending,” he said.
Kenin said the “rising cost of everything,” complicated managing town finances, and that ideally a combination of private fundraising and town dollars would be used to complete projects such as upgrading “town treasures” including the New Canaan Playhouse and Waveny House.
“There are safety issues we need to address and we need to provide better cell phone service throughout (town),” Kenin said. “… Part of the cost to maintain and improve those town resources are contributed from the town budget but we also look to private fundraising to meet our goals.”
Karl also numbered “overall capital needs” facing the town including the Playhouse, Saxe Middle School, and “an aging Waveny House” as difficult politically and financially for town leadership.
“We’re looking at all these capital projects against the possibility of interest rates rising,” Karl said. “It is trying to understand what is the priority going forward what is the most important issue we have in terms of capital needs.”
Campbell said that the recently raised possibility of the Town Council initiating a charter review commission could result in unforeseen changes.
“I think an important issue facing us is the possibility of a charter review,” Campbell said. “When you open up a charter for review you open up the full charter, and I’m concerned about what the outcome would be in terms of how we govern ourselves.”
Aguirre Ross said many downtown residents saw their assessed property values rise during the most recent revaluation in 2014, and that the focus should be on paring back on unnecessary capital projects to keep tax increases manageable.
“Those who are elected must be cognizant of the delicate balance between needs and wants and the financial impact on taxpayers,” Aguirre Ross said. “New Canaan should not become a tax and spend town, or it will become unsustainable for the community.”
Holding the line
After the Town Council forum, the six Republican candidates for the Board of Education answered questions about how to hold the line on the school district’s budget. This year the budget is $83.2 million, 59 percent of the town’s total budget.
Mary Ann Marcella, a New York City school teacher who spoke out against the Common Core curriculum at the forum, said among the town could likely increase class size modestly to save money without compromising instruction.
The town could also consider putting the school budget to an annual referendum to voters, Marcella said.
“Fiscal conservatives in town are not really spending like fiscal conservatives,” Marcella said. “… I looked over the New Canaan school budget and there were just so many areas that stood out. I could offer a good perspective because I can look at something and say that shouldn’t cost that much.”
Hazel Hobbs, one of two incumbents and the current chairman of the Board of Education, said it would be difficult to make changes in the classroom to save money, but that looking at consolidation with the town in purchasing supplies or other areas could produce significant savings.
“We have a delicate balance and all the bodies in town are looking at it with a microscope to find places to cut without disturbing that delicate balance of what brings people into New Canaan and what makes real estate values as high as they are,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs also said unfunded mandates from the state Board of Education and federal government to administer standardized tests and administer other programs such as bullying awareness, teaching civics, and a slew of others are also putting pressure on local taxes.
“All of these things add up in cost, the staffing to implement it and monitor it,” Hobbs said. “… We need to stop it … and it is very hard because everyone becomes a hero with these mandates.”
Candidate opinion on whether the town might save money by shifting fifth graders back to the school’s three elementary schools rather than spending money on a classroom expansion varied from neutral to skeptical about whether it would work.
This fall town officials are expected to decide between several options to renovate Saxe, estimated to cost between $5.3 million and $16.9 million and ranging from renovating the auditorium only to adding a 25,000 square foot expansion with 12 classrooms.
An estimate of Saxe’s projected enrollment through the next decade by the New England School Development Council predicts that enrollment could rise to 1,400 students by 2020. The current school is built to accommodate 1,200 students.
John Walsh, a professor at Fordham Business School, said an extra year at elementary schools could help fifth-grade students become more mature before attending Saxe.
“One angle which I think we all need to consider is the emotional and psychological angles of the fifth graders,” Walsh said. “… If those fifth graders had one more year at elementary school to work on leadership skills, or looking after some of the younger kids, I think that would be terrific.”
Marcella and Hobbs both said fifth graders at Saxe Middle School are already kept in a separate part of the building from older students, which limits any possible bullying or social problems. In addition, Hobbs said attending Saxe gives the fifth graders access to better art, music, and science facilities and programs not available at the lower schools.
“Saxe Middle School has worked very hard at this and really have two schools in one,” Hobbs said. “Having the students in the middle school provides them additional opportunities we could not finance in the lower schools.”
Gene Goodman, an incumbent, said that the proposal also assumes moving the fifth graders wouldn’t entail costly expansions of the town’s elementary schools.
“Three building projects for the same number of students would be a lot more costly than a building project in one location,” Goodman said.