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This blog is published as an offering of topics that may be of interest to Ridgefield residents in the hope that it will spark some dialog about important issues that face us as a community.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Speech That Never Was > Town Budget Meeting 03/24/11

My name is Jan Rifkinson. I live at 169 New Road. I am retired. My better half, Carol, still has a full time job; she has not had a raise in several years. We are squarely in what was once known as the middle class.

In my opinion, many of us don't know very much about our budgets and we think about them even less. Yet we vote on them as though we know what we are doing.

When the League of Women voters recently held an Ask Ridgefield a Question, maybe 20-25 people showed up. Very few ever attend Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance or Board of Ed meetings. And Town meetings are relatively vacant even though we are governed by the purest form of democracy. Shame on us.

In our annual budget process, the usual divide is between the Town & the Schools so let's talk about that.

Of course children are important, perhaps the greatest asset in life, but they are not to be measured only by how much we spend on them. Of course our homes may be one of our biggest investments but it no longer represents the best rate of return that it once did. 

Of course families move to Ridgefield because we have fine schools but please accept the fact that Ridgefield was rated the #1 town in CT LONG BEFORE we had an $82 million dollar school budget or full day kindergarten so our current school system is not always the PRIMARY ATTRACTION to Ridgefield.

In fact, I know many people who currently live here, are building here or have moved here, not because of the schools, but because Rigefield is just a wonderful, safe, peaceful, friendly town with a lot of amenities.

Those amenities include a library, a recreation center, a theatre barn, a senior center, 17 athletic fields & various public parks, a symphony orchestra, a grand new Boys & Girls Club, a guild of artists, 2 museums, an 18 hole golf course, a playhouse, lots & lots of open space, free summer activities, an historic past, three pubic swimming pools, a beach, forested walking paths, a classic New England Main Street, a neighborly attitude towards seniors & grants for the less fortunate including meals-on-wheels, a bus service for those who are too old or infirm to drive, the Women's Center, Ann's Place, just to name a few.

Roughly 20% of our total budget supports all those things that help make Ridgefield, Ridgefield for EVERYONE in the community. 80% of our budget supports the schools which also makes Ridgefield, Ridgefield but only serves 1/3 of our residents -- some say it's one fifth.

Because of this disparity in services I think that, like some children, the school budgeting process needs more discipline.

FIRST: DON'T continue to negotiate labor contracts that can't be supported & that will eventually cut into educational values. SECOND: DON'T initiate new programs like full day kindergarten without a long term plan as to how it will be financed without sacrificing other grade levels. THIRD: classes & teachers should not be on the chopping block when there are other cuts to be made first.

I am NOT AGAINST EDUCATION. I am against the notion -- and I am sick & tired of hearing -- that our schools are the ONLY thing that makes Ridgefield attractive. Surely it is ONE of the things but NOT the ONLY thing. As for property values, it should be clear to everyone by now that the school system is not THE ONLY THING that affects our property values. ...The other day I actually heard someone state that having a spray bay at the Recreation Center would enhance our property values. PLEASE find another slogan.

Every year I hear the same lecture: we are only talking about $350 dollars, that's about 2 cups of Starbucks per week. But suppose for a moment, instead of a $350 dollar increase, it was a $3,500 dollar increase. Be honest, would all of you feel the same way about the value of education? I'm not so sure. The point is everyone & everything HAS A LIMIT.

And for a good many people in Ridgefield that limit may be represented by the constant drip, drip, drip of $350 on top of the other increments in clothing, food and fuels and FOR THEM it may be too much. So you should stop thinking about it purely from your point of view.

In the first 10 years of living in Ridgefield my taxes doubled. Carol and I can still afford to live here. But, if they double again. Then we will no longer be able to live here. I'm not sure pricing people like us (or anyone) out of town is ultimately good for Ridgefield. Do you? It's possible you do...

...For in this very auditorium I have heard comments like if you can't afford to live in Ridgefield, you should move. How do you think that sounds? How about if I said -- All you rich, entitled people: please move to Wilton or Darien or New Canaan where they have better school systems & possibly lower property taxes. Take all your demands, entitlements, fabulous & expensive tastes & go elsewhere. It wouldn't be very nice, now would it?

The point is we should all be able to rise above the knee jerk politiking & sky-is-falling rhetoric, look at all our neighbors & say: how can we help the broadest swath of Ridgefielders with our current tax dollars, especially now when -- in Ridgefield -- 6% of us are un-employed and more are under-employed, when the food bank has never been busier, when there have been 22 foreclosures in the past 14 months, when all our social service programs have been cut, when SOME unions opened their current contracts & agreed to givebacks, when we've had layoffs, when the library will probably be forced to close two evenings a week, while household income is down, while town income is flat & the national economy -- except for wall street -- is still in the doldrums.

You don't station people at the polls on voting day and send out email blasts to your memberships stating that TOO MANY seniors are going to the polls or that the "wrong people" are voting in large numbers. What kind of statements are those? What kind of attitude generates those sort of statements? Please take a moment to think about this.

Unlike some on the Board of Education, I'm not Pollyanna nor a Casandra when it comes to the economy. I know things WILL improve but it will be in a few years &, in my opinion, the best way to go forward AS A COMMUNITY is if we start to think INCLUSIVELY rather than EXCLUSIVELY.

No town department -- which, like it or not, includes the schools -- can create a budget in a vacuum. We live in a mini-global economy right here in Ridgefield. Everything we do now has a ripple effect.

Whether or not you are planning on living here permanently, please educate yourselves on some of the broader issues affecting this town & consider the long term consequences that will affect everyone before you make demands or vote yea or nay on ANYTHING in this budget. Thank you.

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