RTM gives final budget approval

FI-greenwich-town-sealThe 2014-15 town of Greenwich municipal budget is now official, as the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) gave it an overwhelming stamp of approval Monday night.

The RTM voted by a 176-to-9 margin with five abstentions to approve the $395-million budget, which calls for a 2.75% increase in the town’s mill rate. The vote followed what was largely a contention-free evening and even moved briskly by the standards of an RTM budget vote, with the final tally being announced at close to the three-hour mark for the meeting, which began at 7 p.m.

The night began with an address from Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Michael Mason, who favorably compared Greenwich’s budget to those of nearby communities.

“Often we speak about our peer communities and wonder, Are we doing it right?” Mr. Mason said. “Are we outperforming them? My support of this budget is based on compromise, patience and working from a plan. I would not like to find our mill rate increases like Stamford at a 5% increase or Darien at a 5.7% increase. Increases like that on a continued basis would double all of our tax bills in a little more than 12 years.”

The wide majority of the RTM agreed with Mr. Mason that the budget was worth supporting. There were no major areas of contention in this year’s budget, and a possible showdown over funding for Greenwich Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) never materialized as no motion was made. In fact, only four motions were made to make deletions in the budget, and of those four, only one passed.

By an even bigger margin than it approved the budget as a whole, the RTM removed $375,000 that had been earmarked for the redesign of the intersection of North Street, Fairfield Road and Parsonage Road. That vote, which came after near unanimous displeasure with the plan, was by a 185-to-3 margin with four abstentions. Public support for the plan was so nonexistent that the town did not even protest the removal of the funding at Monday’s meeting.

State money had been secured to pay for 90% of the project’s cost, but several RTM members said it made no sense to do it simply for that reason when the public was so against it. District 11 member Michael Spilo, who lives close to the intersection, said the redesign was poorly put together and unnecessary because the accident history there was not nearly as bad as the town had claimed since most accidents were rear-end fender-benders caused by distracted drivers.

“Who exactly is in favor of this redesign? I couldn’t tell you at this point,” Mr. Spilo said.

No one at the meeting spoke in favor of the project, but it was indicated that the town would revise the redesign and attempt it again next year.

Other attempts to make deletions to the budget were far less successful, as each of the three motions went down to easy defeat. A motion from RTM District 1 member Carl Carlson attempted to remove $178,000 which he said represented the salary of Town Administrator John Crary. His criticism was not built on any specific complaint regarding Mr. Crary’s performance but rather the general idea of eliminating the job entirely because he felt it wasn’t in keeping with democracy to have an unelected person in such a key role in town government.

“I believe the town administrator’s position, which is a powerful position, is one that doesn’t really belong in a democratic organization,” Dr. Carlson said. “It belonged to a part of government where part of authority is ceded to an appointed individual. I think the position is something that doesn’t belong.”

Dr. Carlson urged a return to having a first selectman bring on an executive assistant, as had been done prior to Mr. Lash’s administration, but First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman Drew Marzullo both spoke in favor of retaining the position. Mr. Tesei said he felt having a town administrator had helped the town migrate to a “much more efficient and much more modernized operation.”.

The motion was defeated with only 25 votes in favor of it and 156 against it. There were also 10 abstentions.

Dr. Carlson also attempted to remove $2,370,000 from the ongoing music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School. That motion went down by a 51-133 margin with eight abstentions.

Another defeated motion was from District 10 member Alan Small to remove $200,000 for further work on the Byram Beach master plan that could lead to a new municipal pool in town. Mr. Small said he didn’t believe it made sense to fund the pool when there were still questions about funding a Northwest Greenwich fire station, which he supported.

“Before we have a pool for $7.5 million, our district needs a firehouse,” Mr. Small said, stressing that government’s main responsibility had to be public safety.

Other opponents said they didn’t want to see the money go forward when there were still questions about the design of the pool, how much it would cost and if it was even feasible to have a pool at the location where the current one is run down. Several said they did not want this to be a case where the decision had already been made to go forward by the time the project went before public hearings.

However, proponents of the funding countered by saying the pool and the firehouse were not related and that the $200,000 would lead to answers about the feasibility of the pool project. The town is working on this through a public/private partnership with the Junior League of Greenwich, which would be paying a chunk of the costs. Town Director of Parks and Recreation Joe Siciliano urged the RTM to keep the funding.

“We can build this pool at that location,” Mr. Siciliano said. “There are no environmental problems. There are no problems with the [zoning]. The pool is 100% feasible at Byram Beach.”

Mr. Small’s motion was defeated 46-138 with eight abstentions.

There was also focus on future budgets in Greenwich. Speaking as chairman of the RTM’s Budget Overview Committee (BOC), District 7 member Lucia Jansen stressed the committee’s view that spending had gotten out of control in Greenwich and that something had to be done.

“The town’s spending in the last decade far exceeded our residents’ rate of income growth and the rate of inflation,” Ms. Jansen said. “The BOC feels this trend is neither prudent nor sustainable and it is our hope that this starts an active and constructive dialogue for future budgets. Further, the BOC research shows that as the nation was de-leveraging and moving away from debt after the economic crisis of 2008, Greenwich increased its debt significantly to help finance its compounded growth and spending.”

Ms. Jansen said there had to be questions about what services the town should be providing, noting that Westport had recently outsourced operation of its municipal golf course, and where efficiencies in government could be found. She added that the BOC felt “all options” should be on the table for consideration.

There was also a call from RTM members to have more central organization of the capital improvement projects process in town. It was indicated this would be a subject the body would return to as work began on the 2015-16 budget.

In his remarks, Mr. Mason also talked about future years in Greenwich and called for an increased focus on what he said was close to $50 million in lost town revenue because of the state of the economy since the crisis of 2008. Despite an upswing in revenue this year, he said it was an issue in need of attention.

“If you increase your customer service and efficiency, then you will increase the customer’s willingness to invest,” Mr. Mason said. “It was at that meeting where I came to understand where we are able to make positive revenue improvements. Land has always been a big item in the Greenwich product. We must take the appropriate steps to continue to advance our real estate values. We need to define issues and challenges and address them. I sincerely believe this subject will be a very high priority over the next 12 months.”

 

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