Tesei presents $397-million budget

FI-greenwich-town-sealThe proposed $397-million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year is on the table and it’s time for the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s (BET’s) Budget Committee to get to work.

First Selectman Peter Tesei formally unveiled the proposed budget before the Budget Committee Monday night, with the other eight members of the BET as well as key town department heads in attendance. The full $397,492,173 proposed budget is a 4.54% increase over the $380,233,369 budget approved for the current fiscal year, and it calls for a 3.25% increase in the town’s mill rate for 2014-15.

That figure is above the 3% or less increase in the mill rate that the BET approved as part of its budget guidelines last year. Those guidelines are non-binding, but it could offer a preview of a clash of spending priorities between the BET and Mr. Tesei in the weeks to come.

At Monday’s budget presentation, Mr. Tesei laid out the specifics of his budget, saying it would “provide the needed resources to our departments to meet our priorities of life safety, educational excellence, the maintenance of our infrastructure, and the protection of our residents’ health” while still keeping to the Greenwich tradition of a “modest and predictable” tax rate increase. He said revenues for 2014-15 are expected to increase by more than $15 million and there is an expectation of an increase in conveyance taxes and application fees for building and land use, something Mr. Tesei speculated might signal increasing stability in Greenwich’s real estate market and be a sign that people are selling and improving properties in town.

Among Mr. Tesei’s proposals are hiring nine new firefighters, which he said would allow for a minimum of three firefighters for every shift at the Sound Beach and Byram stations, both of which are volunteer fire companies, and could improve response at a fire scene, where the first few moments are considered the most dangerous. A federal grant is being sought to help offset the cost of this.

There is also a hiring boost for the town’s Land Use Department. Mr. Tesei proposed changing a part-time administrative assistant in the Planning and Zoning Office to a full-time position, a similar change for conservation assistant on the town’s Conservation Commission, and adding a full-time building applications coordinator for the Building Department, all of which had the support of Town Planner Diane Fox and residents speaking on behalf of land use issues at the public hearing later in the night.

Mr. Tesei said there would be a reduction in the town’s Human Resources Department of five positions due to the implementation of a new management system over the course of the next year.

The budget also includes a proposed $170,000 expansion of the Teen Talk program from Western Middle School to cover Central Middle School as well. The highly praised program has been credited with providing 24/7 help to students having difficulties while protecting their identities; the extra funding would allow counselors from Kids in Crisis to cover both schools.

The capital expenses area of the budget, which was proposed at a $37.4-million level, includes ongoing projects like the new Central fire station, Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew and the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School. There are new expenditures for improvement of the town’s emergency radio system, remediation of contaminated soil at GHS, sedimentation improvement for Binney Park, and repairs for a bridge on Round Hill Road for which Mr. Tesei jokingly offered a prize if anyone could actually find it. There is also money for storm drain replacement, completing Cos Cob Park, improving the Holly Hill transfer station, and $9.949 million for school maintenance projects.

“This year’s capital budget represents our continued commitment to invest wisely in maintaining and building our infrastructure,” Mr. Tesei said in his presentation. “It also is balanced with an understanding of the town’s ability to manage and execute these important projects.”

The Budget Committee is made up of four members of the BET and has enormous power in determining what goes forward for approval by the rest of town government in the budget. Marc Johnson is in his first year as chairman of the committee, leading the bipartisan group that is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Mary Lee Kiernan joins Mr. Johnson as a newcomer this year to the committee, which also contains holdovers Leslie Tarkington and Jeffrey Ramer.

The presentation kicked off a very busy next few weeks for the Budget Committee. Meetings with department heads to review the budget began on Tuesday as the committee sat down with several town officials, including Chief of Police James Heavey and fire Chief Peter Siecienski. Today, starting at 9 a.m., the committee will meet with the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie about the district’s proposed $144-million budget. On Feb. 19, another key meeting will be held as the committee looks at the town’s capital budget.

This is all leading to what is known as “consolidation day” on Feb. 25, when the department budgets are put together for a final committee vote scheduled for Feb. 27, known as “decision day.” Once the budget is approved by the committee, which can make additions and deletions or place conditions on expenditures, it will go to the full BET for a vote on March 20, which will be preceded by a public hearing on March 18.

Budget Committee members did not speak much about the proposed budget at Monday’s meeting. In an email to the Post, Mr. Johnson did note that Mr. Tesei’s proposal had come in above the guideline approved by the full BET, but just as he did Monday night, he expressed eagerness to “build consensus towards an acceptable tax rate level.”

The budget presentation was followed by a brief public hearing where people could respond to the budget before the committee began its review. One item that brought a response was the $200,000 set aside in the budget for work on a new municipal pool and park revitalization in Byram, a project the town is hoping to do as a public/private partnership with the Junior League of Greenwich, as the old pool has fallen into deep disrepair.

At the public hearing, Junior League President Cindy Lyall thanked Mr. Tesei for putting the money, which will go toward architecture and engineering work, in the budget and urged the BET to keep the funding in. The Junior League contributed $20,000 last year to work on the project, which Ms. Lyall said proved that a new pool can be built in Byram within new federal flooding guidelines post Hurricane Sandy. She said there is demonstrated community support for the project and pledged an additional $20,000 from the Junior League, pending votes from the board of directors and membership, provided the town contributed the balance of the architectural and engineering funding.

“This additional monetary donation is to further reinforce our strong underlying commitment to the project,” Ms. Lyall said. “But with that said, in order for the Junior League to continue to allocate members’ time and treasure toward this endeavor and proceed with any future fund-raising efforts, we need to see a continued commitment from the town to the project’s timely and successful completion.”


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