Budget vote tonight

First Selectman Peter Tesei addressed the BET Monday night as part of the public hearing leading up to tonight's vote. — John Ferris Robben photo

First Selectman Peter Tesei addressed the BET Monday night as part of the public hearing leading up to tonight’s vote.
— John Ferris Robben photo

All the debating and public comments are at an end and tonight the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) is set to make its voice heard on the 2013-14 municipal budget.

The meeting will begin at 7 in the Town Hall Meeting Room, and approval of the budget, which covers $380 million in new spending to bring the full total up to $431 million, is expected. Once that happens, the budget will be sent to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for consideration in May.

On Monday the public had its last chance to speak about the budget before tonight’s vote, and the expected main area of concern, funding for the Greenwich Police Department, was addressed before the meeting even began. The police had objected to a move by the budget committee to take unused money intended for hiring officers under the department’s table of organization and move it to fixed charges, essentially keeping it from being spent solely at the department’s discretion.

A compromise was reached, though, and the money was restored to the Police Department’s budget with a condition placed on it. Now when the department is using the money to hire new officers it must first go to the full BET for approval. BET Chairman Michael Mason told the Post on Tuesday night that this was not intended to be the BET micromanaging the Police Department or any kind of expression of dissatisfaction with the job Chief James Heavey and his command staff are doing.

“This was never about cutting people,” Mr. Mason said. “It was us asking the department what it’s doing to fill its table of organization. … We just wanted to make sure these people got hired, and it got turned into something else.”

Several speakers at the hourlong hearing still addressed public safety, including First Selectman Peter Tesei.

“I think your prioritization of public safety is in sync with the budget I brought forth,” Mr. Tesei told the BET. “Clearly there is no other priority, perhaps with the exception of public education, to be as critical to the well-being of our citizenry. I applaud the decision to retain the positions in the Police Department budget.”

Alan Williams, president of the Northwest Greenwich Association, said residents stood behind the Police Department and also asked the BET not to cut $50,000 slated for Greenwich Emergency Medical Services.

“Any money they need, whether it’s for equipment or for staffing or any other purposes, is only going to serve the residents better,” Mr. Williams said.

Instead of the Police Department, it was the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project that got the most attention at the public hearing. Currently the BET has a $3.1-million expenditure in the 2013-14 budget for MISA and the Board of Education is expected to have instructions for the finance board about whether to cut, expand or continue with that total before tonight’s meeting. But the project recently received a fresh helping of scrutiny after bids for the construction came in higher than expected, potentially pushing the total cost to $36 million to build the new auditorium and classroom space.

Both project supporters and critics turned out for Tuesday’s hearing, with several residents saying it was time for the town to pull the plug.

Karen Fassuliotis, a longtime critic of the MISA price tag while a member of the RTM, said she did not want to speak about it or tell the BET “I told you so” but repeated that she was “vehemently opposed” to any additional money being spent on the project because the project needed to be “rethought and retooled.”

Instead, Ms. Fassuliotis focused on other town expenses in the budget, like the new municipal pool and Byram park master plan that accelerates turning the former site of the Cos Cob power plant into a park. She said it was unfair for the BET to ask taxpayers to fund these items when basic services in her neighborhood, like traffic calming and sidewalks, were being ignored. She suggested that perhaps the BET owed her neighborhood a refund.

“This budget has exceeded your own budget guidelines,” Ms. Fassuliotis said. “Sure, it’s only .25% over the guidelines, but every increase translates into real money that the taxpayers have to pay. What cuts have been made in this budget? I’m hard pressed to find them.”

RTM member Margaret Freiberg spoke on her own behalf and also read a letter from her District 7 colleague Bill Galvin, saying the town’s spending was far too high.

“MISA is emblematic of a dangerous spending mind-set that is taking hold in Greenwich,” Mr. Galvin’s letter said. “MISA, in spite of all the best intentions of the Board of Education and supportive parents, is on the verge of becoming a budgetary disaster. … But MISA is not the only project. The new central fire station, the King Street fire station, the Byram pool, and the Cos Cob park are just a few of the ‘must haves’ competing for the tax dollars. Is there no funding restraint? Does anyone ever say no to a ‘must have’ project? Where is the fiscal leadership? Finding a way to always say yes is not leadership.”

Fans of MISA were in attendance, too, as parents, PTA members and residents all spoke in its favor and urged the BET and the Board of Education not to make big cuts.

“The merits of this project still stand,” Jennifer Meredith, co-president of the Greenwich High School PTA, said. “We need to keep this project moving forward even if changes are made to it. Do not accept or expect a substandard solution or piecemeal alternative to the overall project.”

Corinta Kotula emphatically added, “We must rouse our consciences and know the ultimate success is entrusted to our young people. Greenwich must redouble its efforts to the completion of MISA, however you can do it. Your decision will go on record as a memorable contribution toward the constructive solution to the existing antiquated, dingy, dismal music space. We should not swerve or falter. MISA must be realized.”

There was advocacy for the $200,000 slated to fund architecture and engineering work on the pool, which is slated to be done through a public/private partnership between the town and the Junior League of Greenwich. Cindy Lyle, president-elect of the league, said the membership had approved $20,000 of its money to help offset that cost, provided the town covers the rest through the budget allocation. Once the money is approved, the league will be able to go forward with private fund-raising efforts while design and town land use agency approval work begins.

John Blankley, who this week made his candidacy for the BET official, again urged the board to consider long-term bonding to pay for major projects like MISA. He also advocated restoring money for school maintenance projects, saying they will become more expensive if pushed off until later.

“We have a very good situation in our town,” Mr. Blankley said. “We are the least taxed, least leveraged of any municipality within 200 miles. The economic situation for the town and the country is looking up.”

Mr. Blankley’s call for bonding got a response from RTM member Michael Wacek, who said he would consider paying for capital expenses on a long-term basis only if the town would move up repayment of its unfunded expenses for retirement and health care costs for town employees. He placed that figure at nearly $200 million, with $132 million for pensions and more than $50 million for other benefits.

Mr. Mason replied that “everybody could hear that pin drop” over the numbers.

Check Greenwich-post.com and Twitter.com/greenwichpost for full coverage of Thursday’s vote.

 

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