After cutting an appropriation of $20,000 in the town capital budget for a license plate reader for the police department, the New Canaan Town Council on Tuesday approved the 2013-2014 town budget, which at $132,040,711 represents about a 5.1% increase over the current budget.
The license plate reader had been a hotly debated item starting in December when it was requested as part of the police department's budget. The reader — essentially a type of camera mounted on a squad car — is used to automatically capture license plate numbers from moving vehicles and run them against various databases including the state Department of Motor Vehicles and National Crime Information Center (NCIC), for possible violations or outstanding warrants.
During a December meeting of the Board of Selectmen, New Canaan Police Captain David Bender said the readers are considered an important crime fighting tool in that they can place an individual's car in a specific location at a specific time, using a mix of software and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. What's more the readers help patrol officers quickly identify and apprehend motorists with outstanding violations, such as unpaid speeding or parking tickets, expired registration, expired insurance or more serious charges, such as failure to appear in court.
Throughout the budget process, however, public officials raised concerns about privacy and what the police department would do with the data collected via the reader — specifically how it would be shared and how long it would be retained.
During the meeting on April 3, Town Council member Roger Williams reported that a bill making its way through the state legislature includes language limiting the retention of information collected from license plate readers to 14 days. He said he supported eliminating the license plate reader from the budget until the bill passes and becomes law.
During Tuesday's meeting, Williams' motion to cut the $20,000 for the reader was approved by an 8-3-1 vote. Town Council members Christine Hussey, Joe Paladino, and Kenneth Campbell opposed the motion, while member Kit Devereaux abstained.
Williams also presented a motion to allocated for five security guards for the three elementary schools and Saxe Middle School. The school board, working in conjunction with the Police Commission, chief of police and other town officials, requested the un-armed guards in January as part of an overall plan to beef up security in the wake of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown.
Williams, however, said the Gun Control bill recently passed in the state General Assembly includes a section defining how municipalities are to go about formulating their security plans, with the potential for grant money for districts that follow the state's guidelines. Williams said based on this, he felt the town and school board were "getting the cart before the horse" by implementing security guards this year.
Town Council member John Emert, who seconded the motion, said removing the $226,000 for the guards from the budget this year would give the school board, school administration, police and town officials "more time to recommend a more well thought out plan, based on recent changes [in state law]." He pointed out that the funding for the security guards could always be handled as a special appropriation later in the fiscal year.
Williams' motion to cut the $226,000, however, failed by a 2-8-2 vote. He and Emert were the only Town Council members to support it — members John Hamill and Kit Devereaux abstained.
Prior to the vote, several Town Council members expressed their frustration with this year's budget process, which was particularly contentious, especially with regard to the Board of Education budget, which at $77,939,705 (including the security guards and other security-related items) represents an increase of 4.58% over the current budget.
Paladino said he was disappointed that, despite the increased level of detail included in this year's school budget — nearly double the amount of information provided last year — it was ultimately of little consequence, since the Town Council was unable to achieve meaningful reductions following the budget's approval by the Board of Finance. He said because the Board of Finance did such a thorough job of finding cuts, it had the effect of relegating the Town Council to a rubber stamp role in the budget process.
"It's hard when you find something meaningful in the budget that can restore revenue, but then when you bring it up, you come to find that this whole process is already done... " Paladino said. "Part of the problem is a flaw with the town charter ... but when the Board of Finance comes out with its figures, we're done, and I find that to be very disappointing..."
Paladino said the Board of Finance puts the Town Council in a position where, "if try to cut further, we only end up hurting town departments..."
"I just can't imagine that the Board of Finance is 100% correct on all its findings," Paladino said, adding that despite all the information that had been debated, it was disheartening "to find out that ultimately, all we need to do is just raise our right hand and we're done with this process... "
Paladino said in his opinion a "charter revision is in order" to help address some of the flaws in the budget process.
Town Council Chairman Mark DeWaele said he shared Paladino's feelings.
"It is frustrating for the Council to receive a budget and only be able to reduce — and not add back," DeWaele said, adding that under the charter, the Council can only reduce, approve or reject a budget proposal.
"Because we get a lot of information — and we have a constituency that we answer to — who says to us, when something is cut, 'can't you do something?' ... well, the way the charter is written today, we cannot," DeWaele said.
DeWaele said nevertheless he was pleased with this year's budget process, in that it resulted in a budget that is "efficient... yet addresses the town's needs."
"There have been hundreds and hundreds of hours sent putting this document together," DeWaele said, adding that the Council alone put in some 200 to 300 hours. "Let it be known that this is something that has been going on for many many months, and it represents a lot of thought, a lot of angst... "
Town Council member Penny Young thanked all of the town department heads, the Board of Education "and everyone who has been involved in this rather lengthy budget process."
"It's been a lot of meetings and lot of time away from your homes — but we appreciate your conscientious and thoughtful approach to budgeting," Young said.
"When I look at the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance's reductions, I think, 'hmmm that's going to come back to us next year,'" Young said. "I hope you all appreciate that we try to address the needs of the citizenry. Obviously we can't do everything, because we are concerned about the impact on taxes, but at the same time we have to make sure our town operates efficiently. We've got a lot in the budget that is fixed [expenses] — such as our union contracts, our health benefits, our utilities, and our normal operations — but we want to maintain a good working relationship with the community and we want to retain our employees."
Prior to the budget vote, Devereaux explained that she would abstain from any votes in support of the police or school budgets due to the fact that a lawsuit recently filed in federal court by resident Michael Nowacki "names 25 officers in our town."
“He [Nowacki] has said that anyone voting in favor of the police budget and education budget would be added to his list," Devereaux said. "I wish I could vote in favor of both, but I will be abstaining."
The Council approved the school budget by a 9-2-1 vote, with members Williams and Emert opposed.