Legislators focus on what’s ahead for Greenwich at United Way breakfast

State Rep. Livvy Floren, at left, and First Selectman Peter Tesei were part of a panel of Greenwich’s elected representatives discussing the outlook for 2015 at the annual Greenwich United Way legislative breakfast. –Ken Borsuk

State Rep. Livvy Floren, at left, and First Selectman Peter Tesei were part of a panel of Greenwich’s elected representatives discussing the outlook for 2015 at the annual Greenwich United Way legislative breakfast. –Ken Borsuk

2014 is not quite finished yet, but 2015 was on the minds of Greenwich’s elected officials last week at the annual legislative breakfast hosted by Greenwich United Way.

First Selectman Peter Tesei was on hand for the morning meeting at Town Hall on Dec. 19 along with state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) and state Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st), and this year they were joined by a new face. Though he has not been formally sworn in yet, newly elected Michael Bocchino was there as the state representative-elect for the 150th District, and all five focused on the myriad of issues before the town and the state and what will be done in the new year to address transportation needs, the economy and the challenges faced by the town’s citizens in need.

The state is coming off a gubernatorial election that saw Gov. Dannel Malloy re-elected to a second term, and with the campaign behind them, Greenwich’s legislators said they were eager to get back to work when the new term begins in January. Greenwich United Way President and CEO Stuart Adelberg said it was through partnership through local and state governments that the agency was able to bring assistance to residents.

Economic outlook

It fell to Mr. Frantz, as always, to discuss the economy. And while there have been signs of improvement in Connecticut’s economic forecast, such as a falling unemployment rate, Mr. Frantz said he was discouraged to see state government continue to grow at a pace he feels is unsustainable. He noted that post-election a supposed surplus has suddenly been revealed to be a $200-million deficit, and he said there were forecasts for future state budgets, with a “deficit of just shy of $3 billion” over the next two years.

“This entire delegation has been saying for a long time that Connecticut state government has a problem and that’s that it habitually grows every single year no matter what the circumstances are in the economy,” Mr. Frantz said. “No matter what’s going on nationally or internationally or in regard to specific industries, it just continues to grow. It’s one of the few states in the country that has that characteristic about it. This is a problem because you have a very simple set of mathematical principles that say if you’re compounding your growth at 2% or 3% or 4% every year, the tax base can only handle so much. We’re a relatively consistent population of about 3.6 million people. It’s just not a growing state anymore.”

Mr. Frantz said that if the state had done as the delegation had been suggesting through all six years he has been in office and either cut back spending to no more than the rate of inflation or go to “zero-based budgeting,” where every line of a department budget would be evaluated, not just ones where there were changes, then Connecticut could have gotten “on a more realistic trajectory.”

“We wouldn’t have to be talking about cutting back services,” Mr. Frantz said. “This is what we’ve been talking about all along. Core government spending is going to start to crowd out important social services spending and spending on education, the environment and other very, very important areas.”

Because of that, Mr. Frantz stressed the need several times for the state to get more “realistic” about its spending and finding efficiencies, calling for additional outsourcing on the state level and claiming that “there’s no question you could take five, six or seven out of these agencies and not many people would notice that much of a difference.” That statement did raise some eyebrows in the audience, and Brook Urban, the event moderator as well as a Greenwich United Way board member, asked if he was talking about state agencies or agencies within Greenwich.

“There is no fat at the local level,” Ms. Urban said, to the agreement of many. “Let’s make that very clear.”

Mr. Frantz assured her he was talking about state agencies. He added that he felt it was “very important to not crowd out any more spending” for social services.

ALICE report

The challenges that people in the state are facing was discussed in a question to Mr. Bocchino. Ms. Urban cited the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE) report from the United Ways of Connecticut, which found that 35% of Connecticut residents fall into that description, meaning they are “working, yet struggling simply to afford basic household necessities.” Ms. Urban said these individuals and families are typically above the poverty line but are “one unanticipated event, like a serious illness, a death in the family, the loss of a job, home or vehicle, away from a major financial crisis.” While noting the lowering unemployment rate and the state’s high minimum wage, which she praised, she said 17% of Greenwich residents fit this description.

“Those numbers are disturbing and staggering,” Mr. Bocchino said. “I think, sadly, we all know one family that is in this demographic, and it’s troublesome. Absolutely the state needs to play a part in this. Over the last several years the cost of living in Connecticut has increased, and Connecticut needs to address these burdensome costs. The highest cost of living has a disproportionate effect on those barely above the poverty level.”

Mr. Bocchino praised programs like the sales tax exemption for clothing and foot apparel under $50 and said that and other programs might not sound big but can have a huge impact. He said he was worried that, given the deficit the state faces, these programs might be eliminated and said, “We need to make certain that they stay” and are expanded. Mr. Bocchino also said a better job had to be done creating opportunities through programs to connect the unemployed and underemployed with quality jobs.

He praised Ms. Floren’s work in bringing back Wright Tech in Stamford to create vocational training for high school students and said the state was “on the right track” in these kinds of efforts but that more needed to be done.

“Connecticut created a subsidized training and employment program called STEP that would allow employers to help hire people by having the state cover a portion of the employee’s wages for the first six months of employment,” Mr. Bocchino said. “In addition, the grant would provide subsidized training for new employees in the manufacturing sector, which is a large sector in the state of Connecticut. We need to continue expanding these opportunities. These are creative ways of training people that not only promote jobs but businesses.”

Mr. Bocchino also said more had to be done to contain energy costs in Connecticut and provide assistance from the state to help families. Mr. Bocchino said there needed to be continued pressure on the state’s representatives to Congress to get federal funding for these programs.

Mr. Tesei also talked about the needs of residents, praising the United Way as well as groups like Neighbor to Neighbor, the local food and clothing bank, for all they do to help people with limited resources. He said there was a limit to how much government could do and that’s why the work of local nonprofits was so vital.

Health care

Ms. Floren focused on health care in Connecticut. The state’s online exchange under the Affordable Care Act has been held up as a model in the nation, and Ms. Floren gave full credit to Kevin Counihan, who had set it up as program administrator and has since been tapped to go to Washington to work on the federal level. Ms. Floren praised the law, which she said had a smooth rollout and was able to attract a high number of participants, but said improvements have to continue to be made.

“Access Health CT needs some tweaking,” Ms. Floren said. “Premiums are low but deductibles are very, very high. Therefore, young and healthy people are dropping out of the program, and this is going to make the risk pool untenable.”

Ms. Floren also raised a red flag of concern about the continuing merger of hospitals and private doctor practices throughout the state. She said that makes it more challenging to access quality health and medical care because it offers fewer choices to people.

Overall, Ms Floren said, the state could take steps to combat high costs through negotiations with the federal government on Medicaid reimbursement, investment in new technology on the state level, improved state efficiency, including getting rid of duplicative services, and a push toward personalized medicine, which advocates say will allow for more custom-created health plans geared toward consumer needs. Ms. Floren said personalized medicine could be a big help toward lowering state costs in health care and moving toward improved outcomes.

“I remain an optimist, but I do worry a lot,” Ms. Floren said.

Seniors

Mr. Tesei spoke on several topics at the breakfast, including his hope that the new magnet programs in town would help alleviate the racial imbalance issues at New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue schools as well as his expectations for a new senior center in town. Currently, the senior center is on Greenwich Avenue across from the Board of Education, but social services groups have long hoped for a new facility.

Mr. Tesei discussed the challenges facing this project, including finding a suitable location. He has worked with the town’s Commission on Aging on this, but potential locations like the Havemeyer Building are difficult due to deed restrictions that it have an educational purpose, and like the Parks and Trees Building on Arch Street, which would no longer meet FEMA regulations after Hurricane Sandy led to new restrictions on what may be build in flood areas.

“We had thought that would be a wonderful location for our seniors until Hurricane Sandy came along,” Mr. Tesei said. “That compounded what already would have been an issue, and given the new height, it would not be the most accessible building. More importantly, it would not be available should we want to use it to house seniors at a time of natural disaster. We don’t want people saying, ‘Look at these silly folks, putting our most vulnerable people right in the mouth of the harbor.’”

Other locations that have been looked at include property by Julian Curtiss School, but Mr. Tesei doubted that property would be available, given potential space needs for the school. However, he said an eye was also cast on the Wells Fargo building on Havemeyer Place, which had once been the Masonic Lodge in town.

“That would be a very attractive building for the town to have in its inventory to address a need that is out there,” Mr. Tesei said. “They are not in a position at the moment to sell it, but my belief — like any economic situation — you just don’t know with the banks. They may revisit that.”

In the immediate future, though, Mr. Tesei said, his office and the Board of Estimate and Taxation would continue efforts to fund modernization of and improvements to the existing senior center. In recent years, new offices and bathrooms have been put in, and there are plans for a new kitchen and dining facility in the near future.

The breakfast was put together by the Greenwich United Way Community Planning Council and had a packed room full of town and nonprofit social services group representatives listening and asking questions about the state of Connecticut. Questions were provided to the legislators in advance and Ms. Urban said this was done to allow for longer answers to be given after research was done. As chairman of the Greenwich United Way’s annual campaign, Ms. Urban also took the opportunity to push attendees to make donations to fund the nonprofit agency’s efforts in town, even joking that Mr. Bocchino would not be allowed to speak until he gave her a check, which he did.

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