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State of the Town 2013: Darien is financially strong and continues to move forward

There's a silver lining in everything, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said in her State of the Town address Monday, especially in the year following Superstorm Sandy and the special education controversy.

"We've come together, as we always do, to rebuild our homes, improve our school and public facility security, enhance our emergency preparedness systems and refocus on the important little things that make us strong and resilient," Stevenson told the Representative Town Meeting. She added that the Board of Selectmen will continue to work with the Board of Education to find long-term solutions to the "burgeoning enrollment."

"It's important to remember that our property values are directly related, in large part, to the quality of our schools. This is a good problem to face," Stevenson said.

She told the RTM that her highest priorities for the coming year are to see the opening of the Mather Community Center, which is slated for February; improved parking management systems; identifying incentive housing zones; the Planning and Zoning to work with the Board of Education to continue discussion of permanent stadium lights; and flood mitigation projects.

Her other priorities are strategic land acquisitions, continuing conversation with Metro-North Railroad and the Department of Transportation to improve the Noroton Heights train station, expanding the natural gas availability in town, enhancing the emergency preparedness systems, a potential move of the Probate Court to 35 Leroy Ave. and prioritizing sidewalk installations.

Stevenson said she is often asked what the "big issues are in Darien." While the town has its share of challenges to address, she always responds, "We are blessed to live in a community with caring and generous people who make Darien a wonderful place to live, raise a family, go to school, start a business and work and play."

Board of Finance

"I am pleased to report that Darien's financial health remains strong, and that during the past year there have been no surprises in the results of the budget and in the management of the town's financial assets," Chairman Liz Mao said.

Though the state economy is slowly growing and the state's budgets are not positive, Mao said, Darien's future is much better.

Mao told the RTM that town departments ended fiscal year 2012-13 with a small surplus of $100,000 on the town's $41 million share of the total $125 million budget and that revenues from the town clerk fees and building permits were higher than expected.

Additionally, Mao said the Board of Education was able to return $367,000 from its $80 million budget.

However, Mao expects to see a 5.49 percent increase in taxes for the fiscal year 2014-15.

"In other years, I have been confident in the Board of Finance's ability to trim the budget back, but this year I am not as optimistic," Mao said.

The overall town spending is forecasted to increase 5.1 percent to $132 million. Mao attributed that to costs for personnel, special education and enrollment increases. Read Full Article 

"As always, the key drivers of operating expenses are personnel expenses," Mao said. "These include both raises and possible additional hires, and estimates for health-care costs still increase by 10 percent per year."

The Board of Finance is on track to meet the 2013-14 budget forecasts, Mao said, except for the Board of Education, which has been working to clean up the special education department after it was determined that the department violated state laws.

"In order to put the Board of Education back on track to appropriately solve the problems uncovered, we taxpayers are all going to have to spend a great deal of money," Mao said. "I do not have the final tally yet on what the costs will be, but I would not be surprised if costs end up being upwards of $1 million."

As of Nov. 13, costs to alleviate the unlawful activities exceeded $415,000, including legal fees and the hiring of attorney Sue Gamm, attorney Theresa DeFrancis and ombudsman John Verre.

Mao's estimates stem from the costs of the investigations, the staff and interim superintendent, legal expenses and the increased expenditures on out-of-district placements, which Mao said she has been told amounts to "more than a million dollars in just the last few months."

"We do not have any control of these expenses, but more important, I sincerely believe we are morally obliged to pay them without protest," Mao said.

"When I spoke to investigator Sue Gamm this summer, I pledged my support, and that of the Board of Finance, to make right the problems in special education, acknowledging to her that we knew it would be expensive, but also the right thing to do."

Board of Education

Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross started her State of the Town address by speaking about the special education controversy to bring the members of the RTM fully up to speed.

"There are many lessons to be learned from this past year," Hagerty-Ross said. "The Board of Education and new staff have taken many steps to strengthen our district and improve the education and communication system in Darien Public Schools."

Hagerty-Ross said she expects the board to return with an update on systematic changes within the district as well as the financial implications from the changes.

"On the financial side, the board continues to monitor the additional expenses related to attorney, consultant and (Freedom of Information) costs," Hagerty-Ross said. "The board is also monitoring possible changes to Individual Education Plans, which may result in additional staffing needs."

The board is anticipating a $600,000 budget deficit for fiscal year 2013-14, she said.

Another challenge the district will face in the future is increasing enrollment and decreasing classroom space. As of Oct. 1, there are 4,895 students in the school system. An increase of 28 students is expected in the 2014-15 school year.

Though the board was moving forward with building projects at Tokeneke and Royle elementary schools, the estimates from architectural firms for the projects were much higher than initially anticipated.

As a result, the Board of Education has asked the interim superintendent, Lynne Pierson, to review the enrollment projections for 2014-15, and the classroom needs to determine more cost-effective solutions to the tight space in the schools.

Planning and Zoning

Newly appointed Commissioner Sue Cameron told the RTM that most senior members of the commission have only been on the commission for two years.

The commission was involved in approving the clean-up after Superstorm Sandy, which damaged 40 homes or outbuildings.

"Property owners were anxious to move applications along quickly so they could get the work done and move back home," Cameron said. "The land use boards and staff expedited these applications, waived or reduced fees and tweaked coverage regulations to allow for an improved process and result."

The commission has started looking forward to updating the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which was last changed in 2006. The plan must be updated every 10 years, but several years are needed to complete the task, including the identification of specialists that are needed for assistance and including those funds in the fiscal year 2014-13 budget.

"Re-examining the town plan gives us an opportunity to address a number of relevant issues before the town, including public facilities, land use, traffic and parking," Cameron said.

The commission is looking to address several short-term goals, such as improvements to the Tokeneke Club; restoration of the Upper Pond and Upper Pond dam; approving the improvements put forward by the Darien Athletic Foundation; starting the Intervale drainage project; continued redevelopment of the Allen O'Neill housing development and at the Kensett property; and the redevelopment consideration of the Old Town Hall Homes on the Post Road.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews

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Megan Spicer

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