Fairfield Budget Talks Eclipsed by Partisan Split, Gripes

Fairfield Town Hall (CT Examiner)


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FAIRFIELD – Although the town is under new leadership, lingering gripes and political tensions following a close election eclipsed much of the 2024-25 budget discussions this month.

After winning the November election against former Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick by 47 votes, Democratic First Selectman Bill Gerber sent the Board of Selectman-approved $337.6 million budget proposal – a 2.18 percent increase over the current budget – to the Board of Finance for review earlier this month.

In his January State of the Town Address, Gerber said he wants to move the town forward by way of commercial and residential development, traffic improvements, investments in flood resiliency and long-term strategic planning. But this month, political splits played a key role in the more than 23 hours of budget hearings held by the Board of Finance.

With little pushback from finance board members, Gerber and the various department heads presented budget items such as a $200,000 increase for the Legal Services budget to challenge a multi-million dollar United Illuminating plan and a 5.58 percent increase in the Penfield Pavilion Complex budget to plan for its reopening following environmental remediation work over the course of the five budget hearings.

Discussions about the Fire Department and the First Selectman Office budgets, however, evolved into partisan debates that have yet to be resolved.

Lingering tensions

Gerber proposed a more than 18 percent increase – from about $14.7 million to about $17.4 million – over the current Fire Department budget to fund increased salaries and additional staff outlined in a polarizing union contract.

The 2021-2024 contract was approved last August after more than two years of failed negotiations and eventual third-party arbitration between the Kupchick administration and the local fire union, retroactively awarding firefighters a 2 percent increase for 2021 and a 2.75 increase in 2022, 2023 and 2024. Of the $2,675,639 increase to the fire budget, new staff and salary increases accounted for $1,638,921. 

Beyond the salary bumps, impacts from the contract negotiations extended to town politics ahead of the November election. After Fairfield Fire Fighters Association President Bill Tuttle criticized Kupchick for “spreading mistruths” about fire department finances and Kupchick reprimanded the union for launching a “misleading social media campaign,” the union publicly endorsed Gerber’s run for first selectman.

At the Wednesday finance board meeting, Gerber, Fire Chief Denis McCarthy, budget staff and the present board members fiercely debated proposed funding increases for firefighter training and additional supervision, with Democrats sitting on one end of the table and Republicans on the other.

Summarizing the 2024-25 expenses, McCarthy explained that the department increased the line-item for training by more than 206 percent – from the current $37,500 to $115,000 – to onboard new employees, update staff on an expected change to Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and make up for past budgets.

“We are, and have been, underfunded historically for our training needs in the department,” McCarthy said.

From 2015 to 2018, Fairfield firefighters had no training budget. Beginning 2019, the town allotted the department a $25,000 training budget each year, which was increased to $37,500 for the 2023-24 budget.

With the additional $77,500 next year, McCarthy said he plans to provide more comprehensive training for firefighters both on- and off-duty. Interim Chief Financial Officer David Becker added that the extra funds will help the department prepare for the “most significant” increase in OSHA standards in the last 40 years.

McCarthy also requested an additional $160,000 to promote seven firefighters and hire one new staff member to serve as lieutenants. 

Under current practices, McCarthy explained, the department responds to calls with three people on each rescue truck. To keep up with National Fire Protection Association standards, the chief said he wants to increase the number of lieutenants on staff to ensure that there is at least one senior member on each rescue truck.

But board member Jim Walsh, a Republican, questioned the need for the new lieutenants and the increase for training, and the conversation soon unraveled.

According to Walsh, who has been on the board since 2012, the chief has never brought up the need for the eight lieutenants in past budget discussions. He questioned why the request came this year, especially given that the town has already increased the Fire Department budget to fund the changes under the union contract.

“Chief, you’ve been here all this time. Have we put our firefighters’ safety at risk by not having a lieutenant on each of the apparatuses?” Walsh said.

McCarthy, however, explained that other priorities superseded the need for additional lieutenants in past budget discussions. Gerber also backed the ask, saying that the department and the town’s Fire Commission have been discussing the $20,000 promotions for years.

The new town executive quickly called for a “point of order,” criticizing Walsh for his line of questioning.

“You’re not asking a budget question… this is a gotcha moment here,” Gerber said. “This is a lawyer trying to like depose somebody.”

“This is about an inexperienced first selectman not understanding what he’s doing,” Walsh responded.

Similarly, Gerber’s leadership was called into question during the March 6 budget hearing about his office’s budget.

New employees?

Shortly after assuming office, Gerber hired a part-time communications director to handle correspondence regarding the proposed United Illuminating project along the Metro North railroad line in Fairfield and Bridgeport. In the new budget, he set aside $93,600 for the new role, sparking pushback by local Republicans.

Along with the communications director, Gerber replaced the chief administrative officer position – which Kupchick converted from a part-time position to full-time position after her 2019 election – with a new, full-time operations director position, and added a part-time constituent relations coordinator position.

Like Kupchick did earlier this month, some Republican board members questioned why Gerber and his chief of staff couldn’t handle communications on their own.

“You know who the communications director was? The person that was elected. The first selectman,” Walsh said. “Is this because you have some type of deficiency that you can’t communicate with the public?”

Under the Kupchick administration, the first selectwoman and her chief of staff were responsible for creating newsletters and communicating with the public, while the new chief administrative officer position she created oversaw town projects.

Jack Testani, a Republican member, said he agrees with Walsh. Paying someone more than $93,000 for a job that could be done by Gerber and his chief of staff is an “insult” to Fairfield taxpayers, he said.

Democratic finance board members, however, largely defended Gerber’s new hire.

Lori Charlton, Democratic board chair, commended Kupchick for her newsletter initiative. However, she said, it would be “foolish” for Gerber and his chief of staff to spend any of their time on townwide newsletters, especially because new town audits revealed a history of “antiquated systems” and a “disturbing” lack of internal controls.

“When I saw $90,000, I did raise my eyebrows. I’ll admit it,” Charlton said. “But this is a position without benefits… we have plenty of administrative positions in this town that we’re paying $80,000, $90,000 plus benefits.”

John Mitola, Democratic vice chair, also noted that the finance board supported Kupchick’s request for a full-time chief of staff in her tenure. Given that Gerber has identified “significant problems” since taking office, he said, the board should approve the increased staffing.

In his earlier budget presentation, Gerber said his administration has discovered many issues that must be addressed, including lacking town communications, a faulty payroll system, a 2021 policy allowing elected officials like the first selectperson to collect severance pay and $38 million of capital projects that were approved by officials but not yet bonded for.

Under this budget, Gerber said, his administration can work to fix some of the long-standing problems.

“My goal in this budget is to make it a better-run town so that we’re better equipped for dealing with the future and some of the issues that we’re going to be facing,” Gerber said.

Before suggesting changes and voting on the budget, the finance board will spend the next week or so revisiting some of the debates and holding public comment sessions. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget on April 3.