Budget gets vote tonight

FI-greenwich-town-sealWith a vote scheduled tonight on the proposed $396 million 2014-15 municipal budget, residents made their voice heard at a public hearing Tuesday night.

The Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) will have a chance to voice its opinion tonight, March 20, in the Town Hall Meeting Room starting at a special time of 5 p.m. But on Tuesday the members of the finance board were listeners as members of the public discussed the items they did not want to see eliminated. The BET’s Budget Committee gave its unanimous approval late last month but the full board can still make additional cuts, or even additions, and the Greenwich Fire Department is hoping for just that.

Last month, in a three to one vote, the Budget Committee eliminated a proposed expenditure of $335,476 for a plan that would have resulted in additional hires and promotions for the fire department, resulting in a minimum of three career firefighters for the Sound Beach Avenue and Byram stations and potentially staff a Northwest Greenwich station, which has been long called for by residents. The committee made the cut saying they weren’t convinced it was necessary and cited the need to better use volunteer firefighters instead of funding full time positions.

On Monday night, the day before the public hearing, at the BET’s regular meeting, the fire department and First Selectman Peter Tesei made a last ditch effort to get the funding restored but they face a long hill to climb as a majority of BET members have expressed disapproval of the plan during previous discussions. That effort continued at Tuesday’s hearing as Mr. Tesei again addressed the BET on it and said life safety had to be a priority.

“We have had decades of excuses and reasons for not making a definitive decision and providing adequate fire coverage for our residents,” Mr. Tesei said. “It is time to act. This is a life safety issue for our residents and our firefighters, both career and volunteer, a property protection issue and an economic issue for residents who continue to see higher insurance premiums. We can replace property, we cannot replace lives.”

Greenwich firefighter Matt Brooks, speaking for Local 1042 which serves as the union for the department, told the BET that the current staffing model was unsafe. By hiring the new firefighters, Mr. Brooks said this can begin to be addressed. He said there were roles for career and volunteer fire fighters in the department but under safety standards and OSHA mandates it was unsafe to continue under the existing model, especially when volunteers cannot guarantee support for two-man engines.

“The Greenwich Fire Department currently operates in a manner that jeopardizes the safety of the firefighters and the residents of Greenwich,” Mr. Brooks said. “Currently fire engines in Byram, Cos Cob and Sound Beach are staffed by only two fire fighters. This staffing model is dangerously deficient.”

He later added, “It’s our belief that it’s only a matter of time before something tragic happens.”

There were, however, also speakers resisting the plan. Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member Gerrit Argento was one of several from the body who said the expense, including all the benefits such as additional pensions that go with the hiring of full-time staff, wasn’t needed at this time. He said that presentations on this from Fire Chief Peter Siecienski and Mr. Tesei were “long on emotional appeals and short on hard, professional data justifying a new, long-term expense” especially with so many ongoing expenses already in place.

“Neither the fire chief nor the first selectman gave any analysis of the priority of this expenditure compared to other expenditures,” Mr. Argento said. “Is this more important than Byram pool? Officials going before the taxpayers to ask for a large increase in their budget should be held to a higher standard of presentation. We cannot fund everything all the time just because we can raise the mill rate or borrow the money.”

Another popular topic Tuesday night was the plea for the BET to restore $433,000 for work on Greenwich Common that was cut by the Budget Committee due to concerns there wasn’t enough information available on the project. Donald Landsman said this cut jeopardized a public/private partnership that would see a gift of $250,000 given to the town for this project, meaning the town would only have spend $183,000 on it. Mr. Landsman suggested the BET could condition the money so it will only be spent if the gift is secured, claiming this will present “no risk” to the town.

Mr. Landsman said this project had the endorsement of Mr. Tesei, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the downtown committee put together as part of the most recent Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).

“The common is about the most valuable piece of property the town owns,” Mr. Landsman said. “It’s in the middle of our main shopping area. It connects the Town Hall with Greenwich Avenue. It’s a green space that we invite our citizens to use its beautiful landscape and it can become a small central park enhancing the downtown experience… All of us have heard about the need for public/private partnerships. Greenwich should be encouraging those, not making it harder for private citizens who want to do good.”

James Boutelle, executive director of the Transportation Association of Greenwich (TAG), also asked the BET to restore a cut from the Budget Committee. TAG provides transportation to seniors in town who cannot drive anymore and the committee reduced a $262,000 request to $182,500 last month. Because of increased demand, Mr. Boutelle said that other services for TAG will have to be cut like providing transportation to employees at The Nathaniel Witherell and delivery of food to residents for the Department of Social Services which he said the organization took on as a courtesy to the town to help reduce municipal expenses in prior years.

Mr. Boutelle said he hoped that additional information provided to the BET would result in a reconsideration of the money at tonight’s vote.

Several other topics were covered during the hearing with speakers advocating for BET approval for additional money for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School and the expansion of New Lebanon School, which faces such overcrowding that  parent Clare Kilgallen told the board students were forced to work “not in a closet, but in closets.” There was also strong advocacy for the BET to fund a full time position for the town’s conservation commission instead of a part time position, with several speakers saying the department needs the help and the institutional knowledge in place.

All of the speakers were hoping they were received with open minds during the hearing. And while it might seem after months of discussion and examination, the BET’s mind was made up, Chairman Michael Mason said that was not the case. At Tuesday’s hearing he said that “there were some issues, I really well tell you, that are undecided” leading into tonight’s vote.

If the BET approves the $395,679,727 2014-15 municipal budget tonight without any additional change it would create a 2.75% increase in the town’s mill rate. The budget will get its final vote before the RTM in May.


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