The proposed $382-million municipal budget for 2013-14 is now in the hands of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET)’s Budget Committee and cuts could soon be forthcoming.
While the consolidated budget, which was formally unveiled Monday night by First Selectman Peter Tesei, calls for a lower increase in the mill rate than has been seen in recent years, the 2.96% increase it calls for is still higher than the budget guidelines approved by the BET, which said it wanted a 2.5% increase or lower, a difference of approximately $1.6 million. Mr. Tesei said this was necessary to allow for capital projects to continue to move forward, honor contractual obligations and provide level services from town government.
The full $381,909,979 budget that Mr. Tesei proposed represents a growth of 3.86% over the 2012-13 current year’s budget, including a 4.12% increase in the capital spending that represents a cut from what had originally been proposed. The largest increase is in the non-capital fixed charges, which are going up 9.62% due to contractual obligations the town made in areas like health care and pension that have gone up, including a 20% increase over this year in the contribution the town must make toward the retirement fund. Salaries are included with the town services section, which is going up 1.45% over the current year.
“We are delivering this budget at a time of some economic uncertainty,” Mr. Tesei said. “Clearly there is some good news out there. Financial markets seem to pick up a little bit. But in the area of housing and unemployment it’s still not 100%. So we have to be cautious as we proceed and certainly have a degree of faith that we are going to have an improvement in our overall climate.”
Mr. Tesei admitted that because of the slow economic recovery and the difficulty of balancing expenditures with taxation, the town was “besieged at all levels with challenges,” and he praised town departments for working with him in keeping their budgets low. Mr. Tesei added that he believed the mill rate, while higher than the majority of BET members called for, remained “modest and predictable,” in keeping with the history of the town since he was on the BET while keeping level services and providing “essential quality-of-life services.”
He stressed that he had heard the concerns of residents about spending.
“We’re not blind or deaf to the realities,” Mr. Tesei said. “As I mentioned last week on my weekly radio program, I can relate to the citizens because I just bought a home and assumed a very large mortgage and have a wife that works to support that while raising two children. I’m very sensitive to the realities we face as a community and as individuals.”
As expected, the budget does not include any major new expenditures for capital projects with the new central fire station, the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA), development of the park on the former site of the Cos Cob power plant, and The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew all ongoing. There is money to help build a new municipal pool as well as for developing projects in future years, like a sedimentation study of the Bruce Park Pond.
The Budget Committee has already begun its work. On Tuesday it heard a presentation on the town’s retirement fund, where costs of meeting obligations have risen, and considered budget requests from several town departments, including public works and police and fire. Today, Feb. 7, the committee will hear an all-day presentation from the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie covering both capital and operating expenses. That meeting will take place in the Town Hall Meeting Room starting at 9 a.m.
Consideration of the budget will continue through the month, with the next significant date after today being the Wednesday, Feb. 20, consideration of the town’s capital budget. Once the Budget Committee makes its final vote, the budget will be sent for consideration by the full BET in March and then to the Representative Town Meeting in May.
What’s unclear right now is what could end up on the chopping block because of Mr. Tesei’s budget proposal coming in over the BET’s approved guidelines. Already the Board of Education has reduced its operating and capital budgets to attempt to conform to the guidelines, which were not able to pass through the BET as smoothly as they typically do. The BET split, both in the Budget Committee and in the body as a whole, along party lines, with Republicans calling for the lower mill rate increase and a spending cap and Democrats advocating for staying with the historic precedent of between a 3% and 3.5% increase, putting them far closer to the Republican Mr. Tesei than their colleagues.
The BET was able to pass the guidelines by only a 7-6 margin, with Republican Chairman Michael Mason casting the tie-breaking vote. It’s possible there could be a similar vote margin on the budget if cuts are thought to be too deep. Already residents have expressed concern about the reductions to the schools’ capital budget, saying it defers too much maintenance.
RTM member Christine Edwards cited the amount of money having to be spent by the town in recent years to rebuild Hamilton Avenue and Glenville schools after years of deferred maintenance.
“I’d hate to see us say, ‘Let’s cut $2 million from maintenance,’ and then here we go with another school that needs to be built up again because it’s suffering because we’re not doing the maintenance we need,” Ms. Edwards said. “I thought we learned that lesson.”
Former RTM member John Blankley, a former corporate financial officer and current small business owner, said cutting the schools’ capital budget was a mistake.
“I respect your desire to be conservative, but I don’t think you’re actually being conservative,” Mr. Blankley said to the Budget Committee. “It will cost us more in the end, and people on both sides of the aisle know that.”
Mr. Tesei made good on a promise to restore funding in this budget for an emergency generator at Eastern Middle School that had been cut to get the school budget within the BET guidelines. Mr. Tesei restored this because of its potential use as part of an emergency shelter for disasters like Superstorm Sandy.
“This $350,000 generator will pay for itself over several events,” Mr. Tesei said, noting the time and effort it took during Sandy to get a mobile generator to the school.
Dr. McKersie and Ms. Moriarty also made a presentation Monday night, outlining the district’s $142-million budget and emphasizing the commitment to improving digital learning. Dr. McKersie said that plan has evolved to no longer start with a “leap to buy lots of digital devices” but still holding true to “transforming teaching and learning within the digital environment.”
“We are not there at this point in Greenwich and we have to get there,” Dr. McKersie said. “Digital learning will certainly drive academic achievement, and it is definitely about preparing students for college and career… There is no way our students will achieve at the common core level or beyond unless they are in a digital environment. Nearly all of the common core standards require our students to be rich in what a digital environment can provide.”
Dr. McKersie said the strategy now is to get more of the digital system in place before the widespread distribution of digital devices based on research and best practices. He said this would all have to be done over the next two years in order to insure continued student success.
As always, the budget presentations were followed by members of the public having the chance to speak to the four members of the Budget Committee. The public hearing on Monday was briefer than it had been in years past with the school cuts a major part of the discussion. There was also a continued show of support for the proposed municipal pool in Byram. The current pool in Byram Park has fallen into visible disrepair, and the renovation is expected to be done through a public/private partnership led by the Junior League of Greenwich. League President Emily Sternberg spoke on Monday and praised Mr. Tesei for including $200,000 in the budget for architectural and engineering work for the project, which was deferred last year by the budget committee. The league will be putting $20,000 of its money toward the $200,000 commitment from the town if it passes through the BET.
“The Junior League has committed two years of our members’ time, expertise and dollars to getting our partnership to this point, and we look forward to continuing partnership with the town to make this pool and park project a reality,” Ms. Sternberg said, urging a commitment from the BET.