Goldrick, Huffman unveil town finance plan

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BET members, from left, Sean Goldrick and Randall Huffman unveiled a plan they claim can save taxpayers millions. — Ken Borsuk photo

As the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET)’s Budget Committee begins looking at the proposed budget guidelines for the 2015-16 fiscal year, two members of the town finance board say they’ve found a better way.

The Budget Committee was scheduled to have its first look at the proposed guidelines worked on by committee Chairman Marc Johnson at its meeting on Tuesday night, after deadline for this week’s edition of the Post. The four-person committee will then examine and debate them before a vote next month to take them to the full BET. However, before the guidelines were even released, BET members Sean Goldrick and Randall Huffman held a Tuesday press conference to take public what they say is a more effective plan that would save Greenwich taxpayers more than $17 million and hold the mill rate increase to only 1.7% in the ’15-16 fiscal year.

Mr. Goldrick and Mr. Huffman said that their plan would save taxpayers an estimated $81 million over the next four years with the greatest saving, a projected $22.2 million, coming in the fourth year. And all of this, they say, could be done while still addressing major capital projects throughout town like building a new municipal pool, remediation and dredging of Binney Pond in Old Greenwich, a northwest Greenwich fire station, and addressing drainage issues throughout town that have led to many flooding concerns. But to do this would require the use of an idea that has been dead on arrival in recent years on the BET, long-term financing.

Several in town have advocated for long-term financing as a way to pay for major projects like the musical instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School, and last year BET Democrats formally pushed for its use. However, citing their own concerns about debt being built up, BET Republicans blocked those efforts and this year’s climate does not seem to suggest anyone changed their mind.

“We should be using long-term financing, especially in these times, for major capital projects,” Mr. Huffman said. “It’s not only good finance, it gets projects funded and accomplished faster than we’ve been doing, which not only saves money but, because of current interest rates, ends up costing less than if you delay them and wait. By either not using financing or only using short-term financing, we’ve had to reduce the number of projects we’re doing, reduce how fast they were being done and, in many cases, doing them in a less than quality approach.”

They said this was what was happening currently with the town’s Department of Public Works having to come in for a more expensive emergency appropriation to deal with sewer issues in town instead of having it addressed earlier. They claimed it would make more sense to pay for major capital projects over a 20-year period rather than over a shorter term, considering the projects are meant to last for decades. Mr. Huffman said having to keep town employees in a rundown police or fire station instead of being proactive about the projects has been “embarrassing” for Greenwich, potentially putting the town at a disadvantage when people look for a town to move to in Fairfield County.

“That’s not only bad financing and bad economic planning, it’s unfair to current taxpayers,” Mr. Huffman said. “The people living here today, many of whom are at or are approaching senior levels, are having to pay taxes for facilities they will at best use for a very few years and will be there for many years to come in full, active use.”

Mr. Huffman and Mr. Goldrick said that Greenwich was the only municipality of its kind in Connecticut rated AAA by credit agencies that did not use long-term financing. Similar towns, like Darien and New Canaan, utilize it.

In addition to the financing, the two also advocate for doing away with the $210-million debt limit in place to pay for needed capital projects. Both men have been frequent critics of the limit and say that having an adjustable debt limit equivalent to 1% of the town’s equalized net grand list not only is fiscally conservative but far more effective toward meeting Greenwich’s needs while remaining below debt levels similar municipalities.

“Our numbers are very carefully considered but the $210-million debt limit was pulled out of the ether,” Mr. Goldrick said. “It has no relation to anything. … By substituting in what we propose, it still comes out to about sixth tenths of one percentage of the grand list. That’s half of the level of other AAA municipalities in the state of Connecticut and it’s one-quarter of the federal level.”

Other proposals were unveiled, including moving tax dollars from idle cash balances and using them to reinvest in the town as part of the fund balance, and having a tipping fee for commercial haulers bringing municipal solid waste to Holly Hill. While residents pay, commercial haulers do not, leaving Greenwich as the only municipality in the area that does not charge a fee. Mr. Goldrick said this can bring in $3 million in revenue annually. And while that idea has support in town, Mr. Goldrick noted the proposal to reduce the size of the Greenwich Police Department through attrition and consolidate town firehouses to bring about savings would be controversial. But he and Mr. Huffman said that the crime rate declining by more than half in Greenwich over the last 20 years made it possible and that there could be full crews at the fire stations by closing some and consolidating.

The plan does include building and fully staffing a northwest Greenwich fire station, which has been advocated by backcountry residents for years.

No other members of the BET attended the press conference though leadership was informed of it and the Democratic caucus was sent copies of the proposal in advance. Mr. Goldrick said they were taking the unusual step of going directly to the media because they had been denied the chance bring it to the full BET by Chairman Michael Mason. He said he hoped that this would lead to a conversation with all of their colleagues on the board about the proposal.

“We had asked repeatedly for the opportunity to make a presentation to the full BET,” Mr. Goldrick said. “We are full, duly elected, members. We had basically completed these guidelines in July but we were told the opportunity would not be available to us. Randy tried again recently and said how much work was put into this and how this alternative should be discussed. We were told in the spring if we had any suggestions, send them in to Marc Johnson, and we wanted to come up with not only our own guidelines but show how it is put into practice in a real budget. We call this common sense budget guidelines for the town of Greenwich, but that’s not a slogan. There is no tricky financial engineering going on here. There are no smoke and mirrors. We have not picked these numbers out of thin air. We worked closely with our finance department over weeks and months. Nothing’s in here that they said ‘No you can’t do that. It’s not feasible.’ It is feasible.”

Mr. Goldrick and Mr. Huffman were joined at the press conference by Democratic Town Committee Chairman Frank Farricker, who had attempted a run for the BET last year but withdrew rather than force a split committee to choose between him and a sitting member. While all three are Democrats they stressed this was not being presented as a partisan proposal, rather one based on numbers put together with the help of Town Comptroller Peter Mynarski and Budget Director Roland Geiger, who also worked with Mr. Johnson on his submitted budget guidelines.

Mr. Farricker called the plan “conservative in its approach” and much of the methodology behind it was similar to what Republicans have said they are for, with the low mill rate and the addressing of capital needs now rather than wait for them to become bigger issues.

“For far too long, the leadership in the BET, at least in my opinion, has looked at things backwards,” Mr. Farricker said. “They’ve haven’t looked at how to deliver the best results for the people in town. They haven’t looked for a way to solve problems and find solutions. Instead they’ve come up with something that just doesn’t work. This is easily one of the most comprehensive and problem-solving attempts to give us maximum value for our tax dollars that’s probably ever come out of the BET process. It needs and deserves a very serious and very sober consideration of all of its aspects. This is neither the Democratic guidelines nor the guidelines of Sean and Randy. There’s no personality involved in this whatsoever. This is just the right way to do things for the town of Greenwich.”

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