Budget committee approves 2.75% mill rate increase

BET Budget  Committee members from left, William Finger and Joseph Pellegrino, give presentations before making their vote on the town budget.— Ken Borsuk photo

BET Budget Committee members from left, William Finger and Joseph Pellegrino, give presentations before making their vote on the town budget.
— Ken Borsuk photo

The Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) Budget Committee has completed its work and the 2013-14 municipal budget is now in the hands of the full finance board.

And before a decision is made later this month, members of the board had their say at a special meeting on Tuesday night at the Havemeyer Building. At this meeting the board went over the budget department by department, with members having their say on issues like leaf pickup, a potential new fee for commercial haulers at Holly Hill, school maintenance, and a look ahead toward the April discussion on the town’s debt ceiling. The full BET will vote on the budget on March 21 with a public hearing on March 19, but this was the first time the board held a meeting like this.

BET Chairman Michael Mason told the Post after the more than three-hour meeting that this was done to have the conversation in an open setting where members of the public could attend and everyone could express their views after the completion of the Budget Committee’s work. He joked that he wouldn’t be sure how it went until he heard the complaints after, but both BET Republicans and Democrats indicated they felt the meeting was a success.

“I believe in working toward consensus, and I think this was a real chance for us to do that,” Mr. Mason said. “I know I learned a few new things tonight from the members, and I think it was a very good and productive discussion. This is something we haven’t done before, and I think we need to do it. If I have an item that I want to make a change on, I think my fellow board members would rather know right now what I’m talking about so when we get to the 21st and I propose it they’ll have an idea where I’m coming from.”

Democrats William Finger and Mary Lee Kiernan told the Post they agreed this was a good idea.

“It’s another way to fully vet the budget and get everyone’s opinions,” Ms. Kiernan said. “It’s a good chance to hear from other members who didn’t get the chance to really speak during the Budget Committee’s deliberations. I have to give credit to the chairman for giving us all the chance to speak up.”

At the Budget Committee’s “decision day” last Thursday, there was a unanimous vote in favor of a budget with a mill rate increase of 2.75%, which is in line with last year’s increase. After several changes, including some additions, the committee handed over a $380,233,372 budget of new spending to the full BET. With total spending commitments for the town, the full budget is at $431 million for 2013-14. This approval left the budget very close to the $382 million in new spending proposed in February by First Selectman Peter Tesei and is likely the form that the final budget will take.

One issue that has emerged in the last week, though, is funding for the Greenwich Police Department. Last week the Budget Committee opted to remove $600,000 from the department’s salary line and move it to fixed charges, meaning the money is there still but would require BET approval to be spent. The committee also voted to cut 10 positions from the GPD’s 155-officer table of organization, due to retirements that have already left the department at 145 officers, over the objections of Chief of Police James Heavey and Capt. Mark Kordick, head of operations for the department.

In a letter to local media this week, Chief Heavey expressed concern over that cut, saying the department is already short-staffed and this will have an impact.

“It is truly my fear that once these positions are removed from the table of organization, they will never be returned and that the level of police service will be unavoidably reduced,” Chief Heavey said.

Chief Heavey proposed that the BET leave those 10 positions in and also “work with the department” to fund at least six additional police officer positions so the GPD would be able to hire in advance of openings and have new recruits on board.

BET members, including Mr. Mason and Budget Committee Chairman Joseph Pellegrino, have indicated their willingness to review this and make sure the board’s intention is clear. Both men have expressed their support for Chief Heavey and the department.

The budget, in addition to ongoing projects like the central fire station, the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School, and The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew, includes funding for the popular Byram Park master plan and swimming pool project.

The town’s only municipal pool has fallen into disrepair, and the town is set to team with the Junior League of Greenwich in a public/private partnership to build a new one. The project, despite enjoying strong support, was delayed last year, but this year the Budget Committee voted three to one to push forward with $200,000 for architecture and engineering work that will be offset by money from the Junior League. Next year a design is expected to be narrowed down and private fund-raising efforts to begin.

The Budget Committee also gave a stamp of approval for accelerating the project to turn the former site of the Cos Cob Power Plant into a park with a playing field. The committee approved an addition of $2.3 million to push the project forward by expediting the development. Like the vote on the park, it was three to one in favor, with BET member Leslie Tarkington casting the lone vote in opposition. She cited concerns that with so many capital projects ongoing she did not want to see the attention of the Department of Public Works and town Buildings Superintendent Alan Monelli spread too thin.

The committee also unanimously added $3 million to begin funding soil remediation at Greenwich High School.

There were cost offsets as well. The Budget Committee reduced the budget for the Fleet Department by 5%, and when the full BET considers the matter later this month it could be reduced even further. It will be up to Mr. Tesei and the Fleet Department how the cut, which comes from money used for the purchase of new vehicles, will be applied. Mr. Mason had called for an even steeper cut, while still soundly praising the Fleet Department at Tuesday’s meeting, but the budget committee members worried it would be too much of a reduction. BET members also said they would like to see a review in time for next year’s budget about use of town vehicles through GPS data now available to the town.

Unlike the highly contentious Budget Committee meetings over the drafting of budget guidelines, which ended locked in a two-to-two tie and then locked in a six-to-six tie at the full BET with members split down party lines, the actual budget consideration featured little partisan wrangling and ended up in a compromise between where the board had split over the guidelines. Town budgets are typically approved unanimously, and that tradition seems likely to hold now, which is a change after last year’s discussions. Republicans on the Budget Committee ended up moving far closer to what both BET Democrats and Mr. Tesei, a Republican, had been asking for.

The Representative Town Meeting will consider the budget in May. The BET has power to add in money for such projects as additional school maintenance funding or positions in the Police Department, but the RTM would only have the power to cut. So the upcoming public hearing and BET vote is the last chance for new funding requests to be considered this year for the 2013-14 budget.

 

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