BET approves budget, long-term bonding request fails

FI-greenwich-town-sealThe Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) has given its blessing to the 2013-14 municipal budget but work is still left to be done.

The budget officially approved by the finance board last Thursday night is actually incomplete because of the ongoing uncertainty around the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project for Greenwich High School. Bids for the construction came in higher than expected, forcing the proposed price tag up and triggering a new round of scrutiny for the project, which has already been delayed due to the discovery of contaminated soil at GHS. And at the request of the Board of Education, the BET removed a $3.1-million funding line in the budget for MISA for the next fiscal year.

That brings the approved budget down to a total of $427 million financed with $380 million in new spending. However, it is not expected to remain that way for long. The removal of the $3.1 million was only done temporarily to give the Board of Education time to develop a strategy and consider options for MISA, which could be redesigned or sent forward with the higher price tag. The board is scheduled to hold a special meeting on MISA on April 10, after which it is expected to return to the BET to ask that the money be restored or the amount revised.

Based on his discussions with the Board of Education and how much is unknown right now, BET Chairman Michael Mason said this was the wisest course of action. It was stressed that this was not meant to be seen as a BET decision on the project but just a chance to get all the information before further votes are cast.

“I look at this as a technical amendment,” BET member and Budget Committee Chairman Joseph Pellegrino said. “The Board of Education can take the time now to get back to us with what is their ultimate request.”

It is not anticipated that this delay will impact the consideration of the budget by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in May. But if it drags on further, it’s possible that MISA could be considered separately by the RTM at its June meeting, just as it will be by the BET in April.

During last Thursday’s budget vote, the BET placed conditions on money for several areas of the budget, including $1 million for the Board of Education’s new digital learning program. When a condition is placed on money it means it will be released only when the impacted department meets a requirement placed on it by the BET. In this case, the Board of Education will first have to present a report on digital learning and how its plan will be implemented, something the board is still finalizing (see story on page one).

“We want to make sure there’s money in the budget, but we also want to make sure that we review it,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “This is consistent with major initiatives being thoroughly vetted by the BET.”

Spending conditions

Conditions were also placed on other expenditures, like $2.5 million for a new emergency radio system that will be released once a consultant’s study is received and money for Greenwich Emergency Medical Services (GEMS), where $2 million is being held until financial statements are received. That $2 million is half of the GEMS budget and the statements are expected in December, which would then allow for the rest of the budget line to be spent. A condition was also placed on the Department of Public Works to insure that $250,000 that had been added earlier would be used specifically for storm drain work and nothing else.

One notable condition was the condition placed on demolition of the historic Seton House, which has fallen into disrepair, that could end up saving the structure. Several town residents have been trying for years to keep the house from being destroyed, and Mr. Pellegrino made a motion that was unanimously approved that holds off any demolition until Sept. 30 to allow for “any acceptable alternative to demolition.” Mr. Pellegrino did not get into specifics but said it had recently been brought to the BET’s attention that a “third party” might be interested in rehabilitating the house.

“We do not know whether this will or will not happen, so rather than proceeding with the demolition we are allowing that third party until Sept. 30 to realistically have in place a plan that we would accept that would not lead to the demolition,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “If by Sept. 30 no third party is able to come up with a viable plan, then this condition is released and we will go ahead and demolish the Seton House.”

The BET also formally adjusted the budget by moving $600,000 back to the Greenwich Police Department for hiring new officers. This had been a source of controversy after the BET Budget Committee moved 10 positions off the department’s table of organization because they were unfilled. This did not take the money away from the Police Department but did move it to fixed charges within the budget, meaning that in order for the Police Department to spend it, it needed to meet with the BET first. This created an outcry from the Police Department and the money was moved back with a condition placed upon it for Chief of Police James Heavey to meet with the BET quarterly, or more often if he chose, about recruiting efforts and strategies to reach full staffing.

Bonding debate

But while the BET agreed unanimously on the budget itself, there were two issues where differences were apparent. The first was a motion for the town to consider long-term bonding to finance major capital projects instead of current models that repay over shorter times. There has been a growing call for this from Democrats in town, and on Thursday a motion to implement it was formally introduced by BET member Mary Lee Kiernan to fund the central fire station with bonding over a 20-year maturity. The motion ultimately failed, as it was left in a tie with the six BET Democrats voting for it and the six Republicans on the board voting against it.

“I view this as a matter of prudent fiscal stewardship,” Ms. Kiernan said. “As we look at our budget over the next five to 10 years with a particular focus on our capital model and our fixed charges, there are sharply increasing costs we will face on our budgets going forward. … I think it’s prudent and rational for us to manage our debt structure in a way that will smooth the rising obligations we face in the near future.”

Other Democrats argued that this would provide more flexibility and that the town would never have a better chance to do this since interest rates are low.

“We will not see interest rates this low for a couple of generations, if not more so,” BET member Sean Goldrick said. “We have very, very low interest rates and we should take advantage of that.”

BET member Randall Huffman added that the town’s reluctance to use bonding had caused infrastructure, like the fire station, to fall into disrepair, causing the entire town to suffer.

“This is now the time to move up into the 19th Century and do it correctly,” Mr. Huffman said.

Several Democrats argued that it would be more fair to allow payment for projects like the fire station to take place over longer periods of time than have the burden be felt over just the next five to seven years, since people will be using the building for decades to come. Mr. Pellegrino responded to that, saying he felt it would be unfair to make future generations pay for decisions made now.

“My family has been here for generations, and I don’t recall my grandfather paying taxes and then saying that my father should deal with the taxes in the future because he’s going to benefit from a project, or my father saying, ‘Let Joe take care of it because he’s going to be around in 20 years,’” Mr. Pellegrino said. “I’m not going to pass down to my children a debt level that doesn’t make sense, because this town has the ability to do projects over five-year funding and that’s the appropriate model.”

BET member Leslie Tarkington added that the current model has allowed the town to not be overencumbered by debt and insured that major capital projects could go forward even with the nation in an economic downturn. BET member Art Norton called the current model “very efficient and very effective.”

“This has worked well for Greenwich and I think it would be a major mistake to change the model,” Mr. Norton said.

Tax collector

There was also a party line vote on a motion from BET member William Finger to reduce the salary of the tax collector to $40,000 from $94,197. Mr. Finger said he had wanted to make this motion since longtime Tax Collector Lou Caravalla did not run again four years ago, because to him, it did not make sense to pay an elected tax collector that much. He said if a tax collector was going to be paid that much it should be an appointed position, where the BET could have input in evaluating skills and experience, as it does with the town assessor.

Mr. Finger said this was not meant to be a personal reflection on current Tax Collector Tod Laudonia or as a political motion. Mr. Finger is a Democrat and Mr. Laudonia is a Republican.

“This is not directed to the incumbent, it is directed toward the position,” Mr. Finger said. “I don’t want this to be perceived as a personal attack on the incumbent.”

Mr. Mason said he understood the concerns about “dollars and cents,” but for a major change of an elected position to an appointed one, it would be better to do it as a formal charter change.

“I haven’t heard any customer service complaints with this department,” Mr. Mason said. “I haven’t heard of any problems.”

Mr. Laudonia was in attendance for the meeting and unsuccessfully attempted to speak when Mr. Finger said he had come by the tax collector’s office Thursday morning to meet with him and explain that his motion wasn’t meant to be personal. Mr. Laudonia had not been in the office when Mr. Finger arrived, but later Mr. Laudonia told the Post that it was because he was at a tax collector’s convention in Mystic.

After the meeting, Mr. Laudonia called the motion a “personal attack.” Steve Warzoha, vice chairman of the town’s Republican Town Committee, said after the meeting it was out of line and that tactics like this showed why the town supported Republicans.

“This was a thinly veiled attempt at cheap election year politics that has no place during a vote on a budget that provides for the education, safety and general well-being of all of our residents,” Mr. Warzoha said. “We are very lucky to have a tax collector who is both accessible and accountable to every resident of Greenwich. Tod has one of the highest, if not the highest, collection rates in the state and since he was first elected he has the highest collection rate in the history of the town.”

 

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