Exercise in futility?

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FI-EditorialAs we await the formal unveiling of the 2013-14 municipal budget on Monday night and have already begun the long process of public hearings on it, there’s one question that can’t be ignored.

Are we all just wasting our time by doing this?

Has the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) locked us in to a position where the end result is already in place and unchanging before the specific numbers in the budget are even introduced? It’s quite possible this is exactly where the town finds itself in this year and that the entire budget process is actually one giant exercise in futility that’s over before it begins because of the will of six people on the BET.

The six Republican members of the BET have been quite clear that they favor a spending cap and reduced taxes outside the typical raise of the mill rate. This resulted in a clean split down the middle between the board’s Republicans and Democrats on budget guidelines and necessitated a tie-breaking vote from the chairman, a scenario that could well repeat itself this spring over the actual budget.

At the town’s Capital Improvement Projects hearing this past Monday, Selectman Drew Marzullo made an excellent point when he talked about the reduced school budget and noted that the decision to cut back on capital projects for the schools didn’t happen this month. It happened last year when members of the BET said what they wanted in terms of spending before any project list or cost was put forward by the school district.

Is this what we’re in for the rest of this budget cycle? Is half of the BET so focused on reducing spending — when even a typical increase along the lines of past years would still keep Greenwich’s taxes far below those in neighboring communities — that the decisions are made before the budget is introduced? No matter what is said this coming Monday, is Greenwich locked in to a 7-6 split on the budget with a needless spending cap and no consideration of very sensible long-term financing ideas to get needed and wanted capital projects done?

BET Chairman Michael Mason has said that this is not the case at all and that every project will be considered on its merits and spending will be done in the best interests of the town. Even if a project doesn’t get funded this year it will happen, he says. It’s all a matter of sequencing. But there have to be grave doubts because the BET Republicans have already prescribed a cure for a disease that not everyone in town is convinced Greenwich has.

How can anyone not fear that the ending for this budget is already written when the BET is insisting on tough austerity measures over the objections of half its membership? The Republican members of the BET are acting as if economic calamity is pounding on the door and the only defense is the budget pruning shears, but there is no evidence that austerity will work either nationally or locally.

Is this a slow economic recovery in America? Yes, it is. But it is a recovery nonetheless. The stock market is up. Every month brings news of job growth in the private sector. There are positive signs in the Greenwich real estate market. Things are getting better. But it’s all doom and gloom from Republican members of the BET.

This is not to lay blame on the grand old party. There are a lot of Greenwich Republicans who recognize the value of investment in town infrastructure and the need to have projects like a municipal pool to attract new families to town. Republican First Selectman Peter Tesei will never be confused with a tax-and-spend liberal, and he recognizes that the path down which six members of the BET are leading the town is not what’s right for Greenwich.

Mr. Tesei’s plan to introduce a budget above the BET guidelines but more in line with Greenwich’s priorities — something he is in tune with, having been elected three times by broad mandate — is a positive sign. The BET must be flexible or else Greenwich will find itself making needless cuts that will cost more in the long term for everyone.

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