Budget passes, but money for fire fighters remains a sore subject

It was not a quick journey to get there, but Greenwich now has a $395 million municipal budget for 2014-15.

That’s the number finally settled on by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) after a marathon six-hour meeting on Thursday night that saw several debates, a few additions, a few cuts and some disappointed audience members, including First Selectman Peter Tesei. The budget total currently stands at $395,688,483 and it will now be sent to the Representative Town Meeting for a final vote in May. While the body cannot add in anything, as the BET can, it can still make reductions.

On Friday morning, Mr. Tesei spoke at the Board of Selectmen meeting and called the BET’s version of the budget, which was reduced from the $397,492,173 budget he presented back in February, “sound, but not one I am wholeheartedly pleased with.” At issue was the BET’s refusal to fund a plan pushed for by Mr. Tesei and the Greenwich Fire Department to allow for the hiring of nine new firefighters as well as internal promotions that would have particularly enhanced the Sound Beach Avenue and Byram stations.

The initial $335,476 budget line was eliminated last month by the BET’s Budget Committee, whose members cited concerns that there had not been an adequate staffing plan put forth by the fire department and that through better use of volunteers, any concerns over service gaps could be filled. However, the fire department said the money would allow for three-person crews to go out on all calls instead of two-person crews, which it said would provide quicker response and better safety.

At Friday’s selectmen meeting, Mr. Tesei criticized this elimination, saying the funding would have insured there be enough staffing for all the fire stations in town for “equitable service.” Mr. Tesei added it was “abundantly clear” that the town was not meeting the requirements for its fire service response, citing the gap in Northwest Greenwich. The BET did approve opening negotiations for the purchase of land for a Northwest station, however that does not necessarily mean the board will be inclined to push the project forward since that will be a separate decision.

“This is something I’ve committed to and I don’t intend from backing down from public advocacy for this,” Mr. Tesei said on Friday. “I will continue to work with the BET and other town officials on this. At the end of the day there is no more sacred and important responsibility for an elected official than insuring the life safety of the inhabitants they are elected to serve.”

An attempt by BET member Jeff Ramer at Thursday’s decision meeting to restore $298,201 for eight hires, but not the promotions, was defeated. Mr. Ramer was joined by his colleagues William Finger and John Blankley in supporting the motion, but nine members of the body voted against it.

“Here we are at this point, one of the wealthiest communities in the world, and of all the crazy things we spend money on, I would think that one of the things we would want to spend money on would be on a fair standard of fire support for the safety of the firemen themselves who put their lives at risk and for the care and protection of our residents and their positions,” Mr. Ramer said.

Mr. Blankley, who ran against Mr. Tesei in 2011, noted that the BET had to have a stronger level of confidence than what he felt it had then to go against a recommendation’s from the town’s chief elected official as well as the chief of the fire department. He said it was the consensus of fire departments across the country that a three-person crew was far safer than a two-person crew.

“It is vital for safety in our town to support this proposal,” Mr. Blankley said.

However, as it has for weeks now, the clear majority of the BET continued to oppose it and defeated Mr. Ramer’s motion. BET member Marc Johnson, chairman of the budget committee, said there are 94 certified volunteer fire fighters in town that could be better used.

“It is our hope that by trying to foster better communication and better working relations between volunteers and the career firefighters we will be able to supplement two-man crews with three man and four-man crews,” Mr. Johnson said.

BET member Art Norton added, “I don’t think [the volunteers] are being used most effectively and I think there are instances where they are not being used at all.”

Mr. Norton was one of several BET members who said they wanted to see improvements in that before any new hires were authorized. Mr. Ramer countered that there were no guarantees that volunteers, especially during work days, would be able to respond quickly enough when needed during the critical first minutes at the scene, but said he agreed “adamantly” that volunteers had to be better incorporated into fire response.

The BET also declined to restore funding that the budget committee had cut that would have allowed for a part time Conservation Department to be bumped up to full-time. The performance of the employee was soundly praised at the meeting but BET members expressed concern about the additional benefits the town would have to pay if it became a full time position, despite concerns expressed that the employee might now leave to find full time work somewhere else.

The BET did restore money that had initially been cut for $433,000 that would have gone to improvements for the Greenwich Common, the area of property that connects Greenwich Avenue to Town Hall. That money was added back in with a condition that a gift of $250,000 to the town for the project through a public/private partnership first be secured. If that money is given, as is expected, the BET will release the $183,000 balance from the original request.

The BET also gave its approval to adding in $30,000 for the town to purchase additional trees to replace ones that were lost in the series of storms Greenwich has endured in recent years, doubling the budget line. The final vote on that was seven to six in favor of the expense with BET Chairman Michael Mason voting for it as the tiebreaking vote, despite having been one of the six BET members who voted against it, causing the tie on the 12-person board in the first place.

The budget vote was not unanimous. BET member Sean Goldrick, who had successfully pushed forward the tree budget increase, voted against the final number as a protest vote, citing his belief that town parks were being ignored in the town budget. Mr. Goldrick had earlier made a motion looking to accelerate work on Binnney Park, including dredging of the pond, and moving the expense into the 2014-15 budget. However, that motion was defeated.

There will be additional coverage in the March 27 edition of the Post.

 

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