RTM passes budget, MISA squeaks through

It was a tale of two votes Monday night at the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) as the body overwhelmingly approved the 2014-15 municipal budget, but allowed funding for MISA through only by the skin of its teeth.

The vote on the $9.8-million budget request for the Greenwich High School music instructional space and auditorium project, better known as MISA, ended up being the main event for the night, taking place after the vote on the actual budget and after more than an hour of debate. More than 45 people signed up to speak on MISA, though far fewer actually ended up addressing the body as the meeting stretched close to the midnight curfew that would have caused an adjournment until Tuesday night.

The budget itself passed by a huge margin, with 185 in favor and 23 opposed, with four abstentions, after a handful of motions to cut funding failed. And while MISA had passed with big margins of victory in the past, including as recently as last year’s budget vote, this year the vote was a tight one. MISA passed with 118 in favor of funding and 92 opposed, with one abstention, but considering that in order for the bonding of the project to pass it needed a majority of the entire body, the end result was even closer than it appeared since it needed 115 votes.

But the close vote was still a win for project advocates who have been campaigning for MISA for years. Speakers in favor of the project dominated the debate with First Selectman Peter Tesei, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty, Selectman Drew Marzullo, and former state Rep. Lile Gibbons all offering their support for it along with students and teachers at GHS.

Critics of the project have long focused on MISA’s price tag, and when construction bids for the project came in higher than expected, pushing the total cost up to $42.4 million, it opened up a whole new round of debate both over this project and the town’s level of debt. The $9.8-million appropriation in the budget reflected not just the high bids but an extra contingency for the project put in by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) after it barely approved the project on a party line vote last month, with six Democrats voting in favor and six Republicans against. BET Chairman Michael Mason ultimately cast a tie-breaking vote to allow the project to be heard by the RTM.

More than an hour of debate was spent on MISA on Monday night, more time than the RTM spent on any of the other individual motions before the body at the meeting. Supporters of the project said they understood the concerns, but that this was not the time to turn back when the current auditorium and classroom space are both considered substandard. Ms. Moriarty said at this advanced stage, when work has already begun, a delay would have been fatal to MISA, and she cited past failures by the town to have an adequate auditorium at the high school.

“We need to be clear that if this funding is not approved, the project that has been designed is dead,” Ms. Moriarty said. “We would all like this project to have a lower cost, but that’s not possible. When the current bids came in, all the changes that we could think of cut into the project scope and impacted its ability to meet student needs. The Board of Education does not want to make the same mistakes that got us here. This project, as designed, will meet the needs of many generations of children and we should take pride in doing that.”

Mr. Tesei warned that cutting corners now would be something the town would have to pay for in the future and Mr. Marzullo said a vote against the further funding meant the $5 million already spent on MISA would have been wasted.

Opponents of the funding disputed those contentions, with some saying it made sense to wait first to see the full impact of the remediation of the contaminated soil at GHS and claiming another delay would not have nearly the effect Ms. Moriarty said it would.

“I think you can get into the same project next year if you really want it,” RTM District 1 member Carl Carlson said. “Give one year on this before you make a final decision on this. You can always do something a little later and you can see the options that you really have first. We will know things a lot clearer and a lot better just six months from now.”

RTM member Mark Pruner, a vice chairman of the Education Committee, predicted more money would be needed for the project in the future and said, “I’ve yet to hear how spending the money for this auditorium will result in a better educational experience. … Think of all the other facilities that are going to end up being deferred as we end up spending $64 million or $70 million or $75 million on the remediation costs and the auditorium. Other projects in town are going to be deferred.”

It was the proponents of the project who won the day, however. Michael Wacek, a member of the RTM’s Budget Overview Committee from District 11, said despite the concerns of his colleagues it made sense to do this as an investment for the town.

“I hate to spend money, both my own and the town’s unless I feel it’s being well spent,” Mr. Wacek said before noting that the excellence of the Greenwich Public Schools was why his family moved to town in the first place. “Our public school system and Greenwich High School are the crown jewels of our community and they are an extremely important factor in attracting new families to town. I am convinced for the need to replace the GHS auditorium. … I wish the cost of the MISA project was a lot lower, but I believe it’s an important investment for the town of Greenwich. The lack of a decent auditorium detracts seriously from the brand value of Greenwich High School and the broader community. Failing to reinvest in that brand will have negative long-term consequences for the attractiveness of Greenwich for families.”

District 10 member Lloyd Hull compared the investment to the one made by the federal government in the GI Bill after World War II, which he said also had its detractors saying it was too expensive.

“One thing you must not abandon is education,” Mr. Hull said. “You can abandon anything else. Education is expensive. It doesn’t come easily. But it pays off in the future generations. We must not quit now. We must finish this school and go on with it. Economize in other areas, but not education.”

In addition to MISA, there were debates on several motions to cut the total $427-million budget package during the five-hour meeting, but all of them failed. Members of the body attempted to reduce funding for the school district’s digital learning initiative, the Byram Park master plan that includes a new municipal pool, the park at the former site of the Cos Cob power plant, and a modernization of the town’s form of handling payroll through the Department of Human Resources. Funding was retained by comfortable margins for all of those budget items, with the closest vote coming for the Cos Cob park, which had 116 in favor of the funding and 86 wanting to cut, along with nine abstentions.


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