Darien finance board OKs 3 percent tax hike, Edgerton property improvements

The Veterans Circle at Town Hall.

The Veterans Circle at Town Hall.

Susan Shultz/Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — This week the Representative Town Meeting unanimously approved a tax rate increase of 3.12 percent for the next fiscal year to 16.84 after keeping it flat this year to alleviate pandemic impact.

The finance board approved a total operating budget of $106.6 million for the Board of Education and $46.1 million on the town side, totaling $152.7 million.

Last year, the Board of Finance voted to approve a total budget of $147,862,069 for the town and education combined, with a reduction in the tax rate from 16.47 to 16.33 and a flat tax levy of $138,000,000 for fiscal year 2020-21. Because of the reduction last year, the two-year mill rate average increased to 2.25 percent, or 1.12 percent per year.

A mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment. To calculate the property tax, residents multiply the assessment of the property by the mill rate and divide by 1,000.

While the full budget passed smoothly, one expense created debate in both its individual RTM Finance & Budget Committee and again on Monday night.

The $75,000 for work to improve the Edgerton property, the former site of the now-demolished senior center, proposed by the Board of Selectmen, did not seem to raise eyebrows at the Board of Finance vote. The senior center was moved to Town Hall during the 2011 Shuffle project that relocated the BOE from the Town Hall Renshaw Road complex to 35 Leroy Ave. and created a community center in its place.

Board Vice Chairman Jim Palen explained the expense was simply to get the property to a safe and usable space, versus create some kind of project or additional landscaping.

The RTM Finance & Budget Committee debated the line item during its meeting to prepare the committee report to the full RTM. Committee member Stacey Tie said she felt the group didn’t have enough information on the expense, while other members said they weren’t sure about the future use of the property.

Committee Chairman Jack Davis said the future use had nothing to do with the expense, and, instead, it was to finish a project that hadn’t been completed adequately in the first place.

In her majority report to the RTM, Tie said committee members supported all but the $75,000 unanimously in the budget. She said eight out of 14 members voted to remove it.

“We still have outstanding questions and concerns regarding the $75,000 requested by the selectmen,” she said.

Tie said she and other members have walked the property and felt it is in the same condition as it has been since 2014. She said it is well-maintained and free from debris and leaves.

She also said the item had not been accompanied by the customary executive summary and that members were not sure about the future of the property.

“Why now? It has been in this state since 2014. There’s a lack of clear agreement on the safety issue. It doesn’t seem fully thought through,” Tie said.

Without a “defined plan or use for the property,” it seems fiscally irresponsible to fund it, she said.

On Monday night, Davis, in his minority report, reiterated that it was short-sighted planning in the first place that caused the expense of cleaning up debris that remained there.

“Walking the property, there is some of the original foundation still on ground level,” Davis said.

He said neighbors would disagree that the property is “well-maintained.” There’s also a dilapidated bocce ball court and stairs and walls that were never removed, he said.

“Waiting for a plan to come to fruition will just further delay what should have been done years ago,” he said.

Mac Patrick, chairman of the Public Safety Committee and District 5, said he is a neighbor the of the Edgerton property and noted the land is uneven, collects water and many trees are dead or dying.

“Open space is hard to come by in this area,” Patrick said, saying many believe the Edgerton property could become viable and valuable open space.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said the project came about because COVID-19 gave the board and Town Hall a chance to revisit projects.

She said the years since the demolition have allowed things to settle, construction debris has surfaced, dead and dying trees and other conditions make the property a safety hazard.

Stevenson said the anticipated development in Noroton Heights could bring hundreds of new residents to the area who could be seeking some open space, which she said was prized in Darien.

Member Theresa Vogt said the money would be better spent on sidewalks and didn’t see the issue with the property, while member Monica McNally said instead of asking “Why now?” the RTM should be asking, “Why not now?”

The amendment to cut the $75,000 failed, with just 37 percent supporting the proposal.