Chairman’s View: Cap town spending for three years

Town income is dependent on real estate values and the taxes they generate. Our revenues currently grow at 1% per year.
I propose that we cap spending at 1.50% per year for three years, beginning now. We must limit our spending growth more closely to our revenue growth. The town budget is growing 1.43% while the school budget grew 1.85% ($1.4 million). My proposal means cutting $340,000 from a $91 million Board of Education budget. This is not a criticism of the school budget or their priorities. It is simply the recognition that 2.8% average annual growth we’ve seen for the last 10 years is unsustainable.
The reputation of top-performing schools causes school-age families to move in. The No. 1 reason people move out is affordability. That is particularly true of our empty-nesters and seniors whose taxes developed the school system that we all currently enjoy. It’s the responsibility of the Town Council to make sure we maintain that balance between excellent schools and long-term affordability. We cannot ignore the effects SALT deductibility, revaluation, and pressures from Hartford have had on property values. We must cut spending growth in all budgeted areas to a level New Canaan can sustain.
New Canaan currently plans capital spending of $17 million, $18 million and $18 million in the next three years while retiring only $11.5 million to $12.4 million of debt per year. Those figures don’t meet the needs of our Police Department or library, but they do include a $500,000 fire rescue truck, $210,000 ambulance, $550,000 school planetarium, $6 million Waveny restoration, $200,000 Irwin House restoration, $250,000 Nature Center restoration and $3.2 million in the selectmen’s budget to buy land for new parking lots. We must get serious about re-prioritizing our capital needs within the $13 million cap. Doing so will result in debt service savings of $282,529, $426,047 and $842,239 in the next three years and is necessary if we are to decrease debt service toward the 10% guideline set by the Board of Finance in the fall of 2018. If we don’t limit new capital spending below $13 million, then we will never reach the 10% target.
Two years ago, New Canaan and Darien both claimed mill rates in the 16s. This year, Darien has a mill rate of 16.08 while New Canaan’s will grow from 16.96 to 18.11 and possibly exceed 19 in two years. We need the mill rate to return to levels near that of Darien and Westport, our closest rivals. I am confident that with proper planning we can do this while maintaining school excellence and the current level of services. And, as a Realtor, I am confident that real estate prices will recover and when they do we will be able ease the caps.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. The views expressed in this column are those of the chairman, not necessarily the entire council.