Does it make sense to combine Durham and Middlefield?

Does it make sense to combine Durham and Middlefield?

Record-Journal
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Durham Selectman John Szewczyk has promoted the idea of combining Durham and Middlefield into one town; a complicated undertaking. | Mark Dionne, Town Times

In recent town meetings, Durham Selectman John Szewczyk raised a question that usually comes up in less formal circumstances like parking lots and coffee shops: Why not combine Durham and Middlefield?

“I usually bring it up around budget season,” Szewczyk told the Town Times. “We are one community from our children to our seniors. Let’s reap the benefits.”

The question often comes from Durham and Middlefield parents whose kids share one school system and see little difference between the towns. Combining towns, the argument goes, would save money.

Szewczyk says the budget process usually compels him to bring it up. Regionalizing would allow towns to eliminate duplicate positions. According to Szewczyk, positions like first selectman, tax collector, town clerk, library director, and assessor. “Why can’t we have one for a town of 12,000? It’s not just the payroll. It’s the benefits and we’re duplicating it,” the selectman said.

Szewczyk emphasized the economic argument, pointing out immediate savings, which he estimates to be about $2 million, and long term savings resulting from the economy of scale, eliminating duplicate expensive purchases, and different oversight of the school budget.

“A town of 8,000 and town of 4,000 would become a town of 12,000, still small in comparison to many others in Connecticut,” Szewczyk said.

The process of combining two towns, once called consolidation and now better known as regionalizing, is generally discussed as an economic option for very similar towns to share services.

In financial terms, the largest commonality between Durham and Middlefield is the shared expense of Regional School District 13.

In the regional budget process, dictated by state law, after approval by a Board of Education, the school budget goes to the combined voters of all the towns in the district, with the town governments bound to the results. In municipalities without a regional school system, the school budget is subject to a Board of Finance and voted on as part of the entire town budget.

With one town, Szewczyk said, “No more referendum for school budgets. Instead the Board of Finance would examine and vote on the school board budget, thereby providing an extra layer of oversight. As a result, our school district spending would decrease and be more in line with Guilford and Madison, two terrific school districts and both ranked higher than District No. 13.”

While they discuss the idea far more skeptically than does Szewczyk, Middlefield First Selectman Ed Bailey and Durham First Selectman Laura Francis also see how regionalizing could have benefits.

Bailey said, “We’d speak with one voice. Now when it comes to the schools, there’s two voices … That creates a little dichotomy between the two towns. And it’s noted.”

Middlefield’s support for the school budget at referendum has always been lower than Durham’s and several times the town voted down the budget while Durham approved it by a larger margin.

Francis noted that more grants might be available and new positions like IT support might be viable in a larger town.

The process of combining towns would be immense. Durham and Middlefield would not be combining, really. The two towns would be dissolving and then forming one new town. The entire process would have to be approved by the state legislature and follow state law, the charters of both towns, and, presumably, the will of the people.

Laura Francis said, “We have so much in common that it’s been talked about … but to actually combine, to dissolve and incorporate and create a new entity, from a technical point of view I don’t even know how that happens.”

Another issue is neighborhoods wanting to retain their physical structures, such as libraries and fire houses. Keeping two structures fails to fully realize savings, of course.

“Where are you going to locate? And we get into this thing where it will probably be over in Durham,” Bailey said. “The only way to reduce expenses is to set up a central location, which is difficult because of parochial attachments.”

BOE members examining school closing options accepted as a organizing principle that one school always had to stay in Middlefield, even if it otherwise made sense to close.

Francis considered Szewczyk’s numbers “pretty inflated” but believes studying the idea could realize savings even if the towns do not actually combine. Francis said, “We should do the academic exercise to see where we benefit.”

Dissolution would be an emotional as well as a financial matter.

“Being the smaller partner in the deal, people [in Middlefield] would feel it’s all going to be about Durham and Durham would dominate any issues that come to the polls. That would cause some concern with some people,” Bailey said. “The only thing I hear from people in [Middlefield] is ‘Never do we want to combine the towns.’ There’s a strong sentiment in Middlefield and a lot of regret over the regional school district because it’s a lot of expense and it’s driven by Durham. People feel that our taxes are so high because of the cost of the school system … That’s where our emphasis should be.”

Durham has a slightly higher per capita income, higher average home price, more people, and an older town, more land, and more school buildings than Middlefield, which adds to Middlefield’s skepticism.

Szewczyk said that one town would not dominate the other because they would be the same town. “One town is not taking over another. It’s two towns becoming one. We’d be the same community at that point,” he said.

Francis also noted town pride. “If you were third generation Durham, how would you feel about that?” she asked.

Francis and Bailey said they wanted to explore the idea of other shared services after the resolution of the state’s budget crisis.

In addition to the school district, the towns share the transfer station, and Durham Middlefield Youth and Family Services. While the recreation departments are separate, the services are extensively shared by residents of both towns.

“We consider ourselves sister towns. We work together and we cooperate … when it’s in our common interest we do plow forward,” Bailey said.

Shared services have also fallen through recently.

The towns considered sharing a finance director when both were looking to fill the position but the arrangement fell through when savings did not materialize.

A shared state trooper also did not work out, largely because Middlefield did not want to go from two troopers to either 1.5 or 2.5 and Durham did not want the trooper to commit to an alternating weekly schedule, which Middlefield wanted.

The towns are also in extended negotiations over the Korn building. Durham wants the building for a community center and Middlefield wants to be bought out of its obligation.

Szewczyk is hoping enough people and officials are interested in the idea of combining the towns to form a committee to explore the process and savings.


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