Work on next year’s budget guidelines begins

If you feel that it was only yesterday when the town’s municipal budget got its final stamp of approval from the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), you could be forgiven, but the truth is work is already underway on next year’s budget.

The town is now into the third month of the new fiscal year and with the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) back in session after the summer, work has begun on the 2013-14 budget. To that end the BET’s Budget Committee met last week on the “budget guidelines” that will create a framework for that overall budget. While First Selectman Peter Tesei and the Board of Education have the latitude to assign money to areas and prioritize projects, the BET has the power to cut and adjust so the guidelines have some teeth.

The guidelines themselves, which are expected to be voted on at the BET’s Oct. 15 meeting, have not been formally written, but there is a structure that is coming into shape since the discussion began on Sept. 6. Joseph Pellegrino, chairman of the Budget Committee, told the Post this week that he sees the role of the committee right now as looking at both the capital and operating budgets and setting forth that framework for the municipal budget, but not in a way that interferes with the Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) Committee, which will begin work later this year to determine what the public’s top capital project priorities will be.

“It’s not my intention to usurp the process and the work of the CIP committee,” Mr. Pellegrino said, while adding what he wanted was increased communication and coordination with the committees so that there’s clear direction back and forth about the priorities and how to pay for them.

“I’m not going to create a model that isn’t balanced,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “There has to be balance.”

In comments he gave to the Budget Committee on Sept. 6, Mr. Pellegrino called for a 2% increase cap on the town’s operating budget, setting it at $340,400,000 because otherwise it would be difficult to keep the mill rate increase in the area of 2.5%. Since the operating costs include fixed charges like salaries, health care costs and other negotiated rates set by contract, it figures to make for a tight budget.

These guidelines are still in draft form and have not been approved. Mr. Pellegrino said that over the course of the next week he will take written comments from his fellow BET members in response to the draft. Then in the week of Sept. 24, though the date has not been finalized, the Budget Committee will hold a workshop on the guidelines that the public will be able to attend. This will be followed by further discussion at the Budget Committee’s Oct. 10 meeting where they will be voted on to be sent to the full BET for consideration five days later.

Like last year’s budget, the 2013-14 budget is expected to be tight with little in the way of new capital commitments due to the ongoing funding of major projects like the new central fire station, the Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew and the Greenwich High School music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) construction.

The Board of Education has the power to set its own budget, though it would still need BET and RTM approval, and Mr. Pellegrino recommended that the board’s capital budget be prioritized to only an $8-million increase, without including MISA money, and keep operating costs within a 2% increase from this year’s budget.

At the Sept. 6 Board of Selectmen meeting, Mr. Tesei discussed the work on the guidelines and said he had met with Mr. Pellegrino on them for a bit of a preview into the BET’s thinking. He said it was important for the public to find out about the budget process and get involved in it if there are projects they want to see go forward with town funding.

“It’s important to note that schools, through the Board of Education and the superintendent, and the office of the first selectman, through the town charter, have the responsibility for submitting consolidated operating budgets and capital budgets, but it’s heavily influenced by the role the BET plays in setting the overall fiscal policy of our town,” Mr. Tesei said. “I think it’s important for people to pay attention and most important for people to express their opinions and their views. Sometimes we, and I use the collective we, subjectively say that ‘We think the community wants this’ and ‘We think the community wants that.’ The only true expression of that is through elections, but along the way we need public input to affirm what they really want and whether opinions change.”

While strong public support has led to the funding of projects like MISA, it wasn’t able to cut any ice on two popular projects last year. During the work on the current year’s budget, there was strong public support for building a new Greenwich Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) station for northwest Greenwich, and the renovation of Greenwich’s municipal pool. The pool project, which would be a public/private partnership and is being driven by the Junior League of Greenwich, would replace the town’s only public pool since the current one in Byram is considered to be in poor, degrading condition.

Those two projects were the only ones that received strong pushes from the public last year given the limits that were set due to the funding for other projects. And in both cases the Budget Committee cut funding for preliminary work on the projects, though not the projects themselves, pushing them off to future years, and it’s unclear whether they will have any better chance of going forward in next year’s budget.”

Mr. Pellegrino, when asked about whether these projects had a path going forward in the 2013-14 budget, said again that he did not want to interfere with the CIP process and would see that play out to determine what the public’s priorities were before any decisions are made.

“I want the public to come forward and let us know what the priorities are, but this is going to be a balanced budget,” Mr. Pellegrino said, so if certain projects are going to be pushed it would have to be with other spending deferred. That, he said, will be decisions made down the line.

Mr. Tesei encouraged residents to “be engaged” with the budget process.

“This is going to be a challenging year,” Mr. Tesei said. “We know for a fact that we have significant obligations to meet in the way of post-retirement pension contributions. We have an increase in our health care and in our 18-month contract there’s only six months of certainty with a variable on the second half of the fiscal year that we don’t know for sure. We have other variables that relate to projects, notably the one at Greenwich High School, and we have obligations to maintain our infrastructure.”

Mr. Tesei stressed during his remarks that “maintenance should not take a back seat to anything” because deferred maintenance would only lead to higher costs later when problems grow. He also predicted that there would be a “vigorous conversation” about efficiencies in town government.

“That’s often a very politically expedient word to use,” Mr. Tesei said. “Who doesn’t want efficiencies? It’s like apple pie and motherhood. But what does it truly mean? Some of the issues that may be sexy in the eyes of the media as they play out really require deep analysis and require dissecting them. We provide a service. We are a service organization and the way we provide that service in many ways dictated by the cost of a state-mandated collective bargaining system in what we can pay our employees.”

In remarks to the Budget Committee last week, Mr. Pellegrino indicated this would indeed be a major factor in budget work when he said there had to be a consideration of “our citizens’ willingness to fund increasingly higher costs for level services when faced with government inefficiencies that are a mix of structural, institutional and managerial in nature.”

He also said there had been “numerous suggestions” from the BET to the town over the last 12 years for efficiencies in delivering services and while there had been successes, such as health care savings, other suggestions “have failed to be acted upon or realized.”

Mr. Tesei said when people ask to “look at efficiencies” in town government, you have to ask what that means and if it requires things like outsourcing, which is something that is easier said than done.

“You can’t just wave a wand and say, ‘OK, we’re doing it,’” Mr. Tesei said. “We’re going to have to work with employees, their bargaining units and, frankly, with arbitrators and mediators at the state level. It’s easy to get caught up in the broad brush when you’re talking about efficiencies and structural impediments. But these all have to be dissected and it requires a lot of work from ourselves and the BET and the RTM.”

 

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