Tesei focuses on legacy in state of town address

First Selectman Peter Tesei delivered his State of the Town speech at the Millbrook Club last week

First Selectman Peter Tesei delivered his State of the Town speech at the Millbrook Club last week –Ken Borsuk

As he delivered his annual State of the Town address, First Selectman Peter Tesei looked at a bigger picture — that of legacy and what it means to live in Greenwich.

Mr. Tesei, who is in his fourth term as Greenwich’s chief elected official, addressed a packed crowd last Thursday at the Milbrook Club with a speech carried live on HANRadio.com. Attendance was up for the annual address, which he is invited to deliver by the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce, and Mr. Tesei began by questioning how to even assess the state of a town like Greenwich.

“Our condition is determined by how we collectively manage ourselves and our resources and how we address the current issues and prepare and plan for the future,” Mr. Tesei said. “I believe predictability, balance and stability are all enduring values that have provided our community with purpose, direction and a solid foundation by which we thrive. This success is through our citizens working collaboratively to serve for the betterment of our community.”

Mr. Tesei checked off various issues he has worked on during his close to seven years in office, including a commitment to life safety for residents and businesses, support for education and cultural resources, and the health and well-being of residents, particularly seniors. He said all of this came together to a larger theme about what Greenwich is all about.

“2015 will mark the 375th anniversary of the founding of the town of Greenwich,” Mr. Tesei said. “In modern times, these enduring values continue to guide our decisions in a manner in which we responsibly serve. This is our legacy for future residents.”

Mr. Tesei added later, “The vision [for Greenwich] is very clear that this community has been successful because individuals have come together to support a common goal and to support common values to ensure this is a community that thrives and supports each other and that has created excellence. That has carried forward. We have been the beneficiaries of our foremothers’ and forefathers’ decision making today, and my goal is to see to it that when I leave that I leave it better than when I found it. I think that’s what everyone’s overall objective is.”

Mr. Tesei has given no indication if he intends to pursue a fifth term in office in 2016, something he would be practically guaranteed to get if he did run, since his previous election victories have all been blowouts. Known for keeping his cards close to the vest when it comes to his political future, Mr. Tesei did not offer any hint about his own plans, but speaking afterward to HANRadio.com, his colleagues Selectmen David Theis and Drew Marzullo both said they hoped he would run again.

Mr. Tesei stressed the contribution of volunteers in town as a critical component to Greenwich government, mentioning all the boards and commissions in town completely filled by volunteers as well as parts of the government process like the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and Representative Town Meeting (RTM). He also mentioned the efforts of private citizens and nonprofit entities in Greenwich like the United Way and all they do to supplement the town’s efforts. He specifically praised the United Way of Greenwich’s ongoing work and mentioned that the organization had just begun its annual fund-raising campaign, urging community support for it.

“Government has a purpose, but government cannot do it all,” Mr. Tesei said. “It has been shown that not-for-profits can do it far more cost-effectively and efficiently. That’s the United Way’s track record and commitment of harnessing all the issues in town and deploying resources.”

One current and specific issue Mr. Tesei did address in his speech was the plan recently put forth by Board of Estimate and Taxation members Sean Goldrick and Randall Huffman. Their plan, which was based on increased use of long-term borrowing and revision of the town’s debt limit, put down into budget guidelines a roadmap its authors said could lead to the town being able to invest in long-term capital projects while creating a mill rate increase for 2015-16 of only 1.7%, far below what is likely to eventually come forth from the BET next February. An aspect of that plan includes using attrition to reduce the number of officers at the Greenwich Police Department and consolidation of town firehouses to ensure proper staffing at each station.

Mr. Tesei did not mention either Mr. Goldrick or Mr. Huffman by name, but did sharply criticize that part of the plan. He did not discuss borrowing or the debt limit revision but did say he was not willing to reduce the head count at the police department, citing his commitment to public safety.

“Now is not the time to compromise on public safety, and I will say that there is a discussion of this on the finance board as it embarks on its guidelines for the next fiscal year,” Mr. Tesei said. “A couple of its members have decided that they think it’s wise to cut the police department by 12 people. I will say, and I use this platform to do so, that that is just asinine. It is asinine to mess with something that’s successful.”

Mr. Tesei also discussed life safety in the context of the greater international picture with American forces leading air strikes as part of a coalition fighting against ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria. Mr. Tesei said he did not take safety in America for granted and that he didn’t believe anyone in the audience did either. He said Greenwich was one of the safest communities in the country and “that is not by accident, it is by design through the application of resources.” With terrorism and violence on the rise internationally, Mr. Tesei said, safety should not be taken for granted in Greenwich with its proximity to New York City and the government and financial figures who live in town.

Mr. Goldrick responded to Mr. Tesei’s comments in an email to the Post, saying this was something that made fiscal sense, rejecting the idea it could put public safety at risk.

“Crime rates in Greenwich have dropped by more than half over the past two decades,” Mr. Goldrick said. “Yet our police staffing has risen during that time. We maintain the largest police force relative to population of any suburban community in this region. It only makes sense to consider whether we can achieve cost savings.”

Mr. Huffman also provided a statement, noting that the proposal for the police force was made after he and Mr. Goldrick looked at the department. He said there were 150 positions for full-time officers in the budget, but the number was actually not that high because of training time, injury, illness, and retirements. Mr. Huffman said it was things like this that led to a “considerable unused balance” at the end of recent fiscal years.

“We felt that the current budget could reduce the number of police positions that were not actually being filled at any given time,” Mr. Huffman said. “For Peter Tesei to react as he did seems a bizarre political reaction, especially since he should have been aware of all these facts since he is the police commissioner. This seems even more bizarre since more recently Joe Pellegrino, when he served as BET budget chairman, proposed essentially the same reduction during the budget review of three years ago.”

During his remarks, Mr. Tesei did note the oddness of him being asked to speak yearly at this event, joking that he had told his parents that this was happening and they responded to him, “People are actually going to pay to go to a lunch to listen to you?”

“I told them, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty embarrassing, I don’t know what’s gotten into them,’” Mr. Tesei told the laughing audience. “I find it hard to believe you’re here, but thank you all for coming and taking time from your busy schedules.”

After he completed his prepared remarks, Mr. Tesei took questions from members of the audience, covering several topics ranging from parking and building permit fees in town to the obligation of unfunded mandates on the state level.

Marcia O’Kane, the Chamber’s executive director, noted the sold-out crowd for the event, which was put together by the Chamber and sponsored by Webster Bank. She said that told her a lot of things, but most of all that Greenwich’s business community wanted to become engaged and involved in town and that people were eager to hear the vision for the town laid out by Mr. Tesei. Ms. O’Kane added that she believed it meant people were also more interested in getting involved with Chamber of Commerce functions throughout the year.

“No matter what, there’s something for everybody at our Chamber,” Ms. O’Kane said. “We will continue to advocate, connect, promote, and educate.”

Full audio of the complete speech as well as discussion of it is available online at HANRadio.com.

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