The Woodbridge Board of Finance is finalizing a budget for the next fiscal year with an expected spending increase in the range of 2.8%. Even before this substantial increase, Woodbridge municipal property taxes were, per capita, the highest in New Haven County and ninth highest of the 169 towns in the state. The reason our taxes are so high is simple: Woodbridge has the tenth highest per capita municipal spending in the state. One hundred and fifty nine Connecticut towns–Fairfield, Monroe, Roxbury, Avon, Litchfield, Guilford, Orange, and Madison among them–manage to educate their children, pay their town employees, maintain their roads, provide for public safety, and perform all of the functions of local government at a lower cost than Woodbridge (data from Town Profiles on cerc.com).
I have several suggestions for how to begin to bring these expenses under control. First, let’s look at the largest non-educational budget line: $4M for Employee Fringe Benefits. We have a rare opportunity to tackle these numbers now, as the Town re-negotiates its union contracts. The Town is expecting an unusually large number of retirements in the next few months, before a new labor contract is ratified. Thus, this is the perfect time for a comprehensive human resources audit of all town departments. New technologies and evolving town needs will have changed our personnel needs. Let’s take a thorough look at all job descriptions and division of duties before hiring to replace retirees – I am certain that reorganization and reassignment can result in significant efficiencies.
Second, let’s look at the next largest budget line item: $3M for the Police Department. Two years ago, the Police Commission ordered a study of Police department staffing by the South Central Criminal Justice Administration (SCCJA) after the staffing level of 26 sworn officers was questioned by the Board of Selectmen (Police Commission minutes, April 2, 2014). Apparently, that study was never completed. The Police Commission is in the process of hiring a new Police Chief. It is also advertising to hire new recruits to replace retiring officers. I would suggest that we freeze hiring of new officers for at least six months and ask the new chief to get the results of the SCCJA study and do his or her own thorough needs assessment. Over the last decade both traffic and crime have decreased in Woodbridge – perhaps our Police Department could function just as well without replacing every retiree.
Finally, I urge Town leaders to rethink the plan for the Town Center. The current plan is to create a community and fitness center in the Old Firehouse (a $1.3M project for which the Town has been awarded a $500k state grant) and thoroughly refurbish the Police Department (a $5.6M project toward which we have received another $500k state grant). There is also discussion of renovating the Senior Center. I would suggest that the Town reduce the scope of the Police project for the time being to the $500k grant amount, sparing the Town $5M in near-term borrowing. Further, creative residents are suggesting that the Senior Center, Recreation Department, and Fitness Center move together to the CCW Clubhouse. The Town could then apply the $500k Old Firehouse grant to the CCW clubhouse and allow the Fire Department to use the Old Firehouse for needed storage space. Together, these steps could save substantial money on capital projects, solve the dilemma of what to do with the CCW clubhouse building, and create a new Town asset – a community gathering space for all town residents.