Chairman’s View: On bags and budgets

The Town Council is considering a proposed townwide ban of supermarket plastic bags. Letters are starting to pour in. Supporters of the ban cite the environmental impact. Opponents of a ban say we are chipping away at freedom and personal choice.
Greenwich, Stamford and Westport banned the bags; Darien will be next. Will New Canaan’s decision rest on the more successful write-in campaign? Fewer than 25 people have weighed in. We all want to get greener but do we need more laws? We want to hear your thoughts.
The Budget. The First Selectman declared victory this week, proposing the lowest budget increase in a decade, up 0.16%, with two highlights: One is the way we look at contingency, consolidating department contingencies into one account at the town level. The second is a hiring freeze. Both seem sensible. If passed the mill rate will increase from 16.96 to 18.32 this year. Unfortunately, next year our debt service is forecast to rise and I fear the mill rate may rise with it, making us less competitive with Darien and Westport.
Our Superintendent of Schools brought in a school budget, up 2.05%, and believes we are done because they met Board of Finance standards published in the fall. We are not. Board of Finance models were based on changing assumptions. The whisper number from the Board of Finance and Town Council is we need another $1.5 million (from a schools budget that only rose a modest $1.4 million). Sound impossible? It may be too hard to turn the ship in one year. We did not get to this point in one year and we may not solve it that quickly. 
Consider that over the past 13 years spending increased 42% while enrollment was flat. In the last seven years spending increased 24% while enrollment decreased 3%. 
Consider that Darien teaches 4,726 students with 767 teachers and administrators whereas New Canaan teaches 4,113 with 749. If we managed to Darien’s ratio of 6.16 we would have 81 fewer staff across our schools. 
This is not a criticism of our schools or a statement that their budget is “fat” It is not. It is simply recognition that to meet Board of Finance debt targets of debt service below 10% in a period of rising interest rates we will have to make long-term systemic changes. If zero growth is too much in one year then perhaps a 3-year plan growing 1% per year is something the Board of Education and Board of Finance can agree on together. Such a plan would bring the mill rate back to a level below 18, reassure a jittery housing market, provide less stress to our schools than year by year cuts, meet Board of Finance long-term debt guidance and would be consistent with “stable but slightly decreasing enrollment” projections from our demographer.
Chairman’s View represents the views of the Town Council chairman and not necessarily those of any other Town Council member.