Town spending Budget committee makes its cuts

FI-greenwich-town-sealThe new town budget cleared its first hurdle, but only after first enduring some cuts.

At its “decision day” on Feb. 27, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET)’s Budget Committee unanimously approved a $395,679,727 budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, sending it to the full BET for its consideration. This represented a reduction from the $397,492,173 originally proposed last month by First Selectman Peter Tesei and, if approved as is, would have a 2.75% increase in the town’s mill rate, down from the 3.25% called for in Mr. Tesei’s original plans. This was arrived at after cuts to several proposals, most notably to a plan for additional hiring for the Greenwich Fire Department.

Mr. Tesei had initially proposed $335,476 in the budget for a plan that would have resulted in nine new firefighters being hired, putting into effect a staffing plan that would have resulted in a minimum of three career firefighters being stationed at every shift at the Byram and Sound Beach Avenue stations, which are volunteer companies. While the plan had the strong support of Mr. Tesei and fire Chief Peter Siecienski, the BET opposed it, with all the members except Jeffrey Ramer speaking out against it at a recent budget workshop, saying there was no need for the extra hires.

Mr. Ramer ended up being the lone vote in favor of the plan on the budget committee, which voted by a three-to-one margin to cut the funding.

Because of this cut, the committee also chopped $89,600 allocated to pay for promotions within the Fire Department that would have happened in concert with the staffing plan. The Fire Department also lost $650,000 that had been proposed to buy a new pumper truck the committee felt it could defer.

“There are a lot of capital projects on the table this year, and like usual, like any other budget committee, we are looking for areas maybe we can defer,” committee Chairman Marc Johnson told Chief Siecienski at the Feb. 27 meeting. “Is this something we can defer for a year and spend some money on other items, not that we don’t think that you don’t need it?”

Chief Siecienski said the deferral wouldn’t harm the department’s operations or the town’s safety but he was concerned about interrupting the purchase schedule and about the wear and tear on current equipment.

“We have been playing catch-up with apparatus since the economic downturn going back to 2009,” Chief Siecienski said. “We are stretching out apparatus to almost three pumpers behind.”

Chief Siecienski also cited a concern about volunteer fire departments not getting the equipment they expect to receive. When new engines are purchased for the Fire Department, the engine it replaces is handed over to volunteer fire companies in town.

He said he will hear from those volunteer fire departments that their response times will be affected by the lack of equipment. Chief Siecienski added his view that deferring the $650,000 pumper engine request to next year’s budget deliberations may not save money because another piece of equipment, what he called an aerial platform, is on next year’s list at close to $2 million.

“So you may not be astonished then that I am going to ask you the question next year whether or not you can postpone the aerial platform,” Mr. Ramer replied.

“I understand,” Chief Siecienski said.

Another cut made by the committee was in the town’s annual funding of the Transportation Association of Greenwich (TAG), which uses both public and private money to provide rides to seniors in town. Initially, $260,000 was requested, but the committee reduced it to $182,500, saying that TAG’s own figures showed a change in service was coming, making the money unnecessary while saying they supported the service.

TAG Executive Director James Boutelle criticized the cut at the meeting, saying it would not be able to add on service now, leaving the town on the hook to have to cover it. Mr. Ramer said he would be open to considering an interim appropriation for TAG during the fiscal year if it was determined the money was needed. BET Chairman Michael Mason, not a part of the budget committee, also chimed in, saying he felt there might be a motion in the future to reinstate the money.

“We don’t want this to be an agency in trouble,” Mr. Ramer said.

The town’s Department of Parks and Recreation also felt the sting of the budget-cutting knife last week. A proposed $75,000 expenditure that was going to be spent on seven-day-a-week cleaning cycles was chopped. This came about through the town’s Community First program, which was set up to provide better “customer service” from town departments and employees. But the committee said too much money was being requested.

“My understanding of the Community First program is that it’s not an invitation for a lot of cost,” committee member Mary Lee Kiernan said, questioning the proposed staffing request. “For me it was an invitation for productivity and putting the customer first.”

Another cut was $433,000 that had been slated for improvements on the Greenwich Common leading from the Havemeyer Building to Town Hall. The committee members said they felt the project could wait because there wasn’t enough information yet about its scope and impact on the rest of the landscape. Committee member Leslie Tarkington said she felt the project was “not ready for prime time” and Mr. Johnson noted there was opposition within the town’s Parks and Recreation Committee to because it hadn’t had enough evaluation yet.

A cut was also made to The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew renovation project, but it is not expected to impact it at all. The committee cut $2.5 million from the project’s reserve fund because of $4.5 million in tax credits it received by being a historical structure.

There was, however, good news for the Greenwich Police Department, which saw the budget committee move forward by a three-to-one margin on a request for $5.4 million that had been slated for next year into this year’s budget. That request will allow for a new emergency radio system for the town to move forward at a faster pace. And while there was debate on money for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project as well as funding for a new municipal pool in Byram, those projects were not cut.

The budget will now be voted on by the full BET, so there could be additional cuts, alterations or even additions. The BET’s vote is scheduled for Thursday, March 27, and it will be preceded by a public hearing on the budget Tuesday, March 25.

 

Post Correspondent Frank MacEachern contributed to this article.

 

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