Candidates focus on finances, Greenwich’s future at debate

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Peter Tesei

Greenwich voters got a chance to put the faces behind the campaign promises and party platforms last week when the three candidates for first selectman faced off in a Town Hall debate.

Incumbent First Selectman Peter Tesei, a Republican, is running for his fourth term in office. He is being challenged by both Democratic candidate Elizabeth Krumeich and independent Jim C. Reilly. The debate took place Wednesday night and was sponsored by the Greenwich League of Women Voters with a heavy emphasis on financial issues the town could face in the next two years. One issue that particularly dominated the night was the debate over whether the town should use long-term borrowing to pay for capital projects.

Ms. Krumeich advocated for the call from Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) Democrats to use long-term borrowing to allow capital expenses to be paid over longer periods of time, taking advantage of low interest rates in the process. Democrats have made this a central theme for the campaign, saying it could result in more investment in infrastructure and less of a burden on current taxpayers. She added that this would also make it possible to address needed capital projects in town like flood control and storm drainage at a faster pace.

Elizabeth Krumeich

Elizabeth Krumeich

“We have to stop wasting taxpayer money using short-term bonds to finance long-term projects,” Ms. Krumeich said. “We’re inflating the debt service payments by paying off principal too early and too quickly instead of taking advantage of the historically low interest rates. We could borrow over 20 years at the low rate of 3.175%. We could lock low rates in now for projects that we know need to be done. With five-year bonds, most of our debt service is principal. This ends up costing our taxpayers more because they’re taxed for that five-year principal instead of spreading it out over 20 years. If you were buying a house, you wouldn’t mortgage a house you would use for 20-50 years with short-term debt like you were buying a used car.”

Mr. Tesei said that the current policy of shorter-term borrowing, along the lines of the town’s modified pay-as-you-go strategy, remains in the best interests of the town. He advocated for the continued “systematic investment in our infrastructure” that has been in place over the last decade to make sure that maintenance is kept up and that there is renewal for town buildings. He noted his support for the MISA project at Greenwich High School, renovation of town fire stations and the new Central Fire Station in town.

“If you extend the debt over a longer period of time, you’re going to pay more in interest charges,” Mr. Tesei said. “This is a tried-and-true process of appropriations over shorter duration with lower interest rates. It’s a balanced approach to the town’s finances that has been endorsed by the rating agencies.”

When asked about whether they supported the town’s debt cap on capital projects, Mr. Tesei said he did and that it had been initially approved by a bipartisan measure of the BET.

“Any careful analysis of the town’s capital expenditures over the last nine years will illustrate that we’ve been able to invest and reinvest in our main infrastructure, notably our schools, our life safety facilities and our sewers,” Mr. Tesei said. “When you look at $420 million over the course of a nine-year period, it’s almost evenly allocated between public works-oriented projects, which includes town facilities as well as schools. It’s important to maintain a limit and not build into the mysterious financing mechanisms of Hartford and Washington. It’s what’s made this town strong and attracts people to it.”

Ms. Krumeich said that she didn’t agree with the debt cap because it put an arbitrary limit on the town.

“Even Peter, in his budget message to the town, said that this debt cap could be crowding out worthwhile projects and that the town needed more flexibility in financing projects,” Ms. Krumeich said.

Jim Reilly

Jim Reilly

Mr. Reilly said he favored “cutting back on all expenses” and instead focusing on smaller projects that could bring in revenue for the town. He said for too long the town was simply throwing out resources that could instead be sold and that there were examples of this all over the Holly Hill Recycling Center.

“We could have the most wonderful municipal store selling the most outrageously beautiful, exotic hardwoods if we had a sawmill at Holly Hill,” Mr. Reilly said. “I proposed this a few years ago. There are sawmills in New Jersey at the recycling center and they were making money with it. I’ve been working with wood for 30 years and there is a demand for this.”

Charter reform

Charter revision was also a topic of the debate, as the candidates were asked if they would support calling for a charter revision commission to look at suggesting changes to Greenwich’s governmental structure. Mr. Tesei said he believed a commission was “overdue” since the last one was in 2002 and resulted in changes to the town’s budget process, giving the first selectman greater authority of the capital budget. He said one could look at town elections and perhaps consider the size of the Representative Town Meeting. Mr. Tesei even suggested former First Selectmen Jim Lash, a Republican, and Dick Bergstresser, a Democrat, for the commission.

“There’s a lot of attention today on accountability in local government and a lack of competition for town offices,” Mr. Tesei said. “I think a charter revision commission is warranted to begin the process of looking at how the BET is elected. There should be competition for the board that determines the allocation of our tax dollars. That should be an underpinning. We see the Board of Education as modified competition, but for the folks who decide the future of our children I think it warrants more robust competition.”

Ms. Krumeich said while a review could be considered, the focus would be better off going toward long-term planning for Greenwich.

“I would rather see the resources of these fine people looking at where our community is going,” Ms. Krumeich said. “I’m not sure focusing on town governance, which seems to have stood the test of time, is where we should be spending our time and energies. There are a lot of issues facing our community and there has to be a review of how our town is responding to the changes in the world.”

Mr. Tesei responded by saying that he believed that was handled through the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.

Mr. Reilly called for a review as a way to look at implementing the low-cost programs he feels can bring in revenue. He said these kinds of programs could be an “inspiration” for other communities.

Local authority

All three candidates said they opposed moving motor vehicle tax assessments from the town to the state level and agreed that as the state considered changes to regional planning, Greenwich needed to maintain local control. Mr. Tesei said he was apprehensive about the new state law, with which Greenwich is complying by entering an 18-town consortium called the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials.

“Some of the services in this law sound quite reasonable and we should collaborate, but when they talk about land use management, education and public facility siting, they’re talking about a very slippery slope to eroding local control,” Mr. Tesei said. “What makes Greenwich special is local control, because decisions are made by folks like you and me who live here and not by people who live 25 or 30 miles away. In concept the proposal sounds great. In reality it is a path down a slippery slope toward something that we’ve been fighting for many years, and redistribution is the word that comes to mind.”

Ms. Krumeich said that in entering the consortium, the main goal had to be identifying what was best for Greenwich.

“We have to look at the changes that are being proposed and each change needs to be reviewed from the standpoint of what are the needs of our community,” Ms. Krumeich said. “If you look at land use, it’s very tied to the community and we need, locally, to look at the connection between the business and the residents that are using land to protect the land and ask if the recommendations coming out of the consortium are really in our best interest. I would be very careful in making sure the community knows we are protecting the unique character of this community.”

Mr. Reilly said he believed this state effort was typical of what’s going on throughout the country as complicated legislation ties people into bureaucracies.

“We can’t have people controlling our town that live miles away,” Mr. Reilly said. “We can’t have business as usual in Greenwich. This sounds like the state spending a huge amount of money to build an even bigger bureaucracy that’s just going to complicate our lives and our government and make it difficult for anyone of any integrity who wants to get involved in politics to do it.”

Theis, Marzullo debate

But before the clash of point of views for first selectman began, there was a debate for selectman. The little-less-than-30-minute debate featured Republican David Theis and Democrat Drew Marzullo, both of whom are seeking their third terms on the board. This Board of Selectmen has had the reputation of working well together, and both men backed that up during the debate’s polite exchanges. But both stressed they would stand up for the ideals of their parties while doing what was best for Greenwich.

Mr. Marzullo continued town Democrats’ calls for long-term bonding to pay for town capital projects.

“I look forward to the debate about responsible borrowing,” Mr. Marzullo said. “It seems to be breaking down over party lines, with Democrats supporting one way and Republicans the other, but we have smart, brilliant people on the BET, and in the end as a town we need to look at what we want Greenwich to be. It’s going to cost money. Capital projects are expensive. So you can increase the mill rate, cut services or responsibly borrow.”

Mr. Theis offered his own support for the current policy.

“All we have to do is look at what’s going on in Washington and it’s clear we have to live within our means at every level,” Mr. Theis said. “That will be one of my personal goals, because even though we [as selectmen] don’t have much to do with town finances, individuals have to live within their means and government should be the same way. If there’s a good idea but we can’t afford it, that means it might have to wait until the next year.”

One of the roles of the selectmen is to approve nominations for candidates to town boards and commissions, and both Mr. Theis and Mr. Marzullo said they took that responsibility very seriously.

“This is a vital role that serves the town on many different levels,” Mr. Theis said. “This board takes great pains to make sure that everyone gets a fair shake and everyone has a fair chance to serve. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female or young or old. We want everybody to have a role in government, and that’s something I’m personally proud of. I don’t look at party affiliation. I look at who is best for the position.”

The need for the selectman to be accessible to the public was also discussed, and Mr. Marzullo said he was proud that he’s been there for residents over the past four years.

“I’ve made myself very available and I’ve been very vocal when it comes to CL&P and its poor response after the storms,” Mr. Marzullo said. “I’ve stood firm with the neighbors at North Mianus to keep the cell tower from going, and I’ve been a voice during the budget discussions. As a selectman, you could easily come in once a month, vote and then not do anything else. I’ve been getting out there and using my voice to speak for our residents.”

Mr. Marzullo also said that in the new term it would be important for the selectmen to “get out into the field more” to see what they were voting on. Mr. Theis said that was already taking place, and that the more the selectmen got out into the community, the better they could understand residents’ concerns.

The candidates for first selectman and selectman are slated to meet once more this year with an event Monday, Oct. 28, at the Round Hill Community House at 397 Round Hill Road. The event, which will also feature a debate from the candidates for the Board of Education, will begin at 7 p.m. with refreshments being served at 6:45 p.m. The forum is being co-sponsored by the Round Hill Association, the Northwest Greenwich Association and the Northeast Greenwich Association.

 

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