As deliberations continue, some observations on the budget …

Greenwich-Voices-GoldrickAs the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) considers Greenwich’s budget, I’d like to offer some observations.

A major reason why Greenwich property tax rates are the lowest in the state is that the town spends a much smaller proportion of its total budget on our public school system than other affluent suburban communities. A rule of thumb is that a town spends two dollars on its public school system for every one dollar it spends on all other purposes. In Greenwich, however, only about half of the town’s operating budget goes to public schools.

This year Greenwich will spend approximately $172 million on its school system, with a small increase for 2015’s fiscal year. Education spending is low relative to other towns because just seven in 10 Greenwich children of school age enroll in the public school system, the lowest by far of any suburban school district in the state.

The Board of Education (BOE) proposes spending just under a million dollars for its digital learning initiative, more than $13 million over five years. The BOE’s director of digital learning admitted that he is aware of no other public school system in the country that has attempted to implement a system similar to that which Greenwich is pursuing.

The budget includes $170,000 for the well-regarded Teen Talk program for Western and Central middle schools. The program permits youths 24/7 phone access to a trained social worker, and in New Canaan it’s proved so popular that a recent attempt to cancel funding ignited protest demonstrations and it was reinstated.

Greenwich TAG, which provides rides for many people in town, is asking for an additional $90,000 to cover a growing deficit, while demand for its services grows. TAG is a very valuable service to residents and, in a total budget of nearly $400 million, is well worth the support.

Also included is the final $200,000 for architecture and engineering for a new municipal pool to replace the old, leaking pool in Byram. That needs to remain in the budget.

The town’s contribution to its municipal pension fund is set to rise to $22.7 million from just under $20 million in the current fiscal year. That puts the cost at more than 6% of the operating budget and well above the 2.1% figure erroneously claimed in a recent op-ed.

The largest expense after salaries is not health care premiums or pension costs but capital items. In order to keep debt off the books, even in this historically low interest rate environment, taxpayers are paying $57 million in up-front cash and debt service this year, with an increase to nearly $64 million slated for FY15.

At the same time, the town expects to add between $5 and $7 million to its cash balances this year, ending with as much as $28 million in unassigned balances. The next fiscal year will likely see cash balances expand to well over $30 million, substantially in excess of what is necessary.

I’m disappointed in the lack of funding to dredge Binney Pond and restore that park to the jewel it was. We all know that it needs to be dredged and it’s high time we fund the project. Also lacking is any plan or funding for a new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center. Instead, we continue to spend hundreds of thousands to maintain an aging and inadequate facility.

Inexplicably, the selectmen failed to impose a tipping fee on commercial trash haulers operating in Greenwich. The town should be collecting at least $100 per ton, $4.5 million annually, which is the norm for most other towns in the region. Greenwich households are charged garbage collection fees that are equal to, and often higher than, those of most other communities which charge commercial haulers the tipping fee.

It’s long past time for the selectmen to impose the fee and recoup millions that the haulers should be paying the town.

 

Sean Goldrick is a Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, though the opinions expressed in this column are his own. He may be reached at [email protected]

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