Budget issues discussed at State of Town
About a dozen New Canaan residents gathered at the Bank of New Canaan last Thursday night to hear First Selectman Jeb Walker discuss "the financial condition of our town and strategic priorities for the new term." The event was sponsored by the bank, in an attempt to give back and educate the community, said Diane Knetzger, the bank's vice president and director of marketing.
The bank invited Walker to address members of the community after he was elected to his second term last month.
"It's an informal State of the Town," Knetzger said. "Just what his vision is for the next two years."
During the hour-long gathering, Walker spoke about finances and his priorities, while tackling questions posed by audience members.
"We're in pretty good shape ... . We made some good decisions this time last year," he said. When issues with the economy came to a head during last year's budget session, the town did three major things to minimize damage: controlling costs; keeping an open dialogue with the Board of Education; and instituting layoffs.
"What we didn't anticipate is that the state is broke and getting broker," he said. "But the good news, is that being New Canaan, we don't get very much funding from the state anyway."
New Canaan's general fund is healthy, he said. He estimated the expenditures for 2009-2010 to run about $116 million, and said the general fund holds about $16 million currently.
And it's growing.
The town projected collecting about 97.5 percent of taxes this year, but has collected 99.4 percent so far -- a record rate for New Canaan, Walker said. The excess money collected through taxes, which Walker said comes to about $2.5 million, will go toward the general fund.
"The state is dipping into their general fund," he said. "When you tap into that, that's it. You're done.
"You need that money for who knows what. As long as I'm first selectman, you'll never see that."
He discussed upcoming contract negotiations as possible challenges for the budget, and said the Board of Education "did a great job" on recent teacher contract negotiations, which saved the district money by limiting general-wage increases, assigning extra duties to teachers and increasing employee premiums for health care.
Walker named two issues as his top priorities: maintaining the town's infrastructure and keeping downtown vibrant.
The town cut several improvements from its budget last year due to the harsh economic climate, and the projects still need to be completed now, Walker said.
"How do we deal with the infrastructure ... when we put so much off last year?" he asked.
He cited improvements needed at Town Hall as well as the fire and police departments.
"There are a lot of things that need to be done, and in my view, it just can't be put off," he said.
The fire department has outgrown its current location and the police department is in need of finishing touches, he said. Then there's Town Hall.
"It's baling wire an Scotch tape right now," he said of the building, which frequently has water in the basement as well as asbestos in the roof, he said. It's also not wheelchair-friendly, he said.
"The issue is, how do you tell a town and its taxpayers, `I know you're hurting, but we're going to spend $18 million -- pick a number -- to rebuild Town Hall," he said.
He hopes the building will be replaced rather than renovated, since there are so many changes that need to be instituted,
"The notion of trying to make a 100-year-old building serve a 21st century set of needs ... is hard," he said.
Instead of continuing to patch up problems with "stop gaps," he said he would like to see the building replaced, and "financed by borrowing at probably record-low rates."
His second priority involves working with property and business owners in Downtown New Canaan to keep the energetic feel of the area alive.
"The parking issue is going to be a top priority," he said.
He has applied for STEAP grants for both a traffic and market study, but said the state is pulling out of several STEAP grants.
"Those are the priorities," he said. "The rest of the issues seem to be going pretty smoothly."