The town’s 2013-14 municipal budget is days away from being released and Monday night residents got a chance to campaign for items to be included in it as a future discussion about long-term financing appeared to get rolling.
At the town’s annual Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) committee hearing there were calls for town spending on flooding mitigation, school building maintenance and the town’s municipal pool in the approximately 90-minute meeting. Several of those projects have money in the budget now, but the process is only beginning and the fiscal atmosphere is expected to be even tighter than last year.
The budget itself, which is set to be unveiled formally on Monday, Feb. 4, by First Selectman Peter Tesei, could soon be a bit of a battleground between him and the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET). By a contentious 7-6 vote where Chairman Michael Mason had to cast the tie-breaking vote, the BET split last year on the language of its budget guidelines. The approved guidelines, which all six of the board’s Democrats voted against, called for a cap on spending and a mill rate increase in the 2% to 2.5% range.
At the time, the BET’s Democrats worried this would result in a reduction of services for the town and layoffs of town employees, and they called for language that was closer to the more traditional 3% mill rate increase. This has already resulted in reductions to the Board of Education’s capital and operating budgets in anticipation of BET cuts, but Mr. Tesei said at the Jan. 24 Board of Selectmen meeting that he would be putting forth a budget calling for a spending increase “at or little bit below” 3%.
“I consider it certainly my best-faith effort to insure current services for town operations and schools and continue the capital improvement program,” Mr. Tesei said at the time.
This year there was originally $64 million in requests, which was $3 million more than had been previously estimated because of needed money for the MISA project. Mr. Tesei stressed that this request had been expected and added that through the work of the CIP Committee they had gotten that number down to $57 million. Monday’s meeting was the chance for advocates of capital projects to have the last say before Mr. Tesei hands the budget off to the BET on Feb. 4.
School cuts raise concerns
The BET’s Budget Committee will begin its deliberation next week before the full board considers it in March and sends it to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in March. The CIP committee, which was put in place by former First Selectman James Lash, is chaired by Mr. Tesei and includes Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, Public Works Commissioner Amy Siebert and town Parks and Recreation Director Joe Siciliano as members. Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty and BET Chairman Michael Mason are also on the committee, but as non-voting members.
Several speakers advocated for a restoration of money to the school budget, as they did at the Jan. 24 Board of Education meeting. Lisa Beth Savitz, president of the Greenwich PTA Council, warned against facilities neglect, especially after so much progress had been made in recent years to make sure buildings were adequately maintained, as did Selectman Drew Marzullo, who said the spending cap advocated by Republican members of the BET was impacting needed projects.
“Delaying infrastructure items, whether it’s a school generator, lighting or air conditioning, is a mistake,” Mr. Marzullo said. “It’s a mistake because the people we put in charge of overseeing the Board of Education, in my opinion, remove such allocations to bring capital spending within the BET financial model. The $2-million cut [from the school district’s capital budget] was not done so recently, in my opinion, but done so many months ago when $8 million was the number that fit into a prescribed plan. I do not think an artificial number should have been placed, especially before hearing the needs of the departments.”
Mr. Marzullo added that what wasn’t paid for this year would come back later at a higher cost.
Mr. Tesei said Monday night that he would include in his budget money for the schools, specifically for an emergency generator for Eastern Middle School, which he called “essential.” During Superstorm Sandy, the school was used as an emergency shelter, and Mr. Tesei said he did not want to see funding for this cut.
“I believe this is not even a debatable point,” Mr. Tesei said. “It has to be funded next year. Anybody who lived through Hurricane Sandy or had an opportunity to visit Eastern Middle School knows that it served an essential life-saving purpose.”
Mr. Tesei said he would include it in the budget and, referring to the BET and RTM, added that what “others” do with it would be their decision, but it would be something they would be responsible and accountable for.
Candace Garthwaite, a District 6 RTM member, advocated for money in the budget for storm water drainage. An Old Greenwich resident, she said she and her neighbors “dodged a serious bullet” when Superstorm Sandy had less of an impact than feared, because a lack of drainage in the area could have led to destructive flooding.
“I am encouraged that the drainage projects show up in the budget, but am discouraged that they seem to keep getting pushed back,” Ms. Garthwaite said. “They lose out in the prioritization for aboveground projects. I realize that’s hard because it’s hard to get people to support drainage. Big storms come and go and folks get upset but they tend to forget. This can be an easy target to push back because it’s underground and out of mind. But we’re all aware that the intensity of storms is increasing.”
A project with multiple speakers advocating for it is a new municipal pool. The existing pool at Byram Park is considered substandard and in desperate need of replacement. Residents throughout town have campaigned for this project for years, and it is expected to be done through a public/private partnership between the town and the Junior League of Greenwich. Last year, the BET’s Budget Committee cut money for architectural and engineering work, and the hope is that this year the $200,000 expenditure will go through. Emily Sternberg, the Junior League’s president, said the league was willing to contribute $20,000 to that expense as a show of faith in the project.
“The Junior League of Greenwich understands that there have been many projects that have been preliminarily funded and need to be completed and there are capital projects that will enhance the safety and security of our town that need attention, like the Central fire station, and there are basic services to our community that must be maintained,” Ms. Sternberg said. “However, we must also plan for the future when Nathaniel Witherell, the performing arts facility at the high school and the fire station will be concluded. To do so means investment in land use for endeavors like the Greenwich pool and Byram Park rebuilding project so the town can nimbly move forward in replacing an aging structure that can provide water safety training, recreation and community building opportunities for our town in the near future.”
If the town approves the rest of the money, Ms. Sternberg said, the $20,000 expenditure would then be voted upon first by the league’s finance council and then the overall membership.
“In order for the Junior League to allocate members’ time, efforts and treasure to this endeavor and to proceed with fund-raising efforts, we need and hope to see a commitment from the town toward this project,” Ms. Sternberg said.
However, the project does have opponents. Members of District 7 on the RTM have opposed several town capital projects in recent years because of what they see as the town overspending and creating too much debt. Valerie Stauffer, district chairman, spoke at the hearing and said she was opposed to this expense and suggested the town instead take the time to look at alternate sites throughout Greenwich.
“We’re concerned that the $200,000 study seems to assume the pool will be in Byram Park,” Ms. Stauffer said. “I realize when we acquired the park it came with the pool and it obviously needs replacement and doesn’t meet a lot of standards. But I and some of my RTM members would like to suggest that the Parks and Recreation Department and Public Works be brought into this equation and consider other locations, such as the Hamill Rink, Babcock property and Montgomery Pinetum. Byram Park is a gem and a very, very special seaside location, and I have concerns a bigger pool will be a large hole in the ground with more asphalt.”
This drew a rebuke from Michael Bocchino, president of the Byram Neighborhood Association, who said the community was behind the pool project and Ms. Stauffer’s suggestion of another location was “completely crazy.”
“The pool is a gem of Byram Park,” Mr. Bocchino said. “It needs to maintain in that end of town, where it is fully utilized by the western community and those who do not have pools or access to pools like other areas of town do,” Mr. Bocchino said. “It’s a vital piece of the community. It brings everyone together in the summertime, and it’s a real gem, as Byram Park is. This is a necessity and the Junior League has done an incredible job.”
John Blankley, a former member of the RTM as well as the Democrats’ candidate for first selectman in 2011, spoke about the need for the town to look at long-term financing as a way to finance needed capital projects without having to raise taxes. He said with the economic picture improving, in contrast to the picture BET Republicans have of it, the time was right to do the financing.
“As a finance professional I am very much in favor of long-term financing,” Mr. Blankley said. “People here may not realize it, but what we do in our budgets is squash into one cycle, one generation if you like, the capital expenditure that really pertains to many generations of townspeople. It’s very important that we don’t shortchange the schools and that we don’t shortchange our children. It’s as simple as that.”
This followed an idea put forth by Mr. Tesei in the meeting that long-term financing could be explored through a public referendum. Mr. Tesei did not personally endorse the idea but said it could be spurred by citizen involvement to get an item on the ballot about it.
“Given that this is a local election year, it is timely to have that not before an insulated group already selected through a political process but to the voter at large, who can then answer affirmatively or negatively if they think it’s in the best interests of the town,” Mr. Tesei said. “I’ve heard arguments on both sides as to why not to do it from people of both political persuasions, and in the end I think it comes down to simply, do you trust the citizenry to make the decision? After all, they pay the bill.”
Mr. Marzullo, who like Mr. Tesei is up for re-election this year, predicted long-term financing would be the “central election issue.”
Mr. Mason was given a chance to speak near the end of the meeting, and he sought to assuage fears that the BET was going to be slashing projects, while urging patience.
“Look back and find something we have flat out said no to,” Mr. Mason said. “It’s just a question of sequencing things. If you look back in the last 10 years, I’ve often said my reputation is going to go down the drain because I’ve spent more than just about any other BET member. The schools alone were at $200,000 in capital in a nine-year period, and that’s really kind of a conservative number. We’ll get there. It’ll happen. It just takes time. It does not happen that quick. The Budget Committee will look at all of these projects and look at the interest rates.”