In annual address: Tesei highlights positives, but notes cost challenges

Not surprisingly, First Selectman Peter Tesei thinks the state of Greenwich is strong. But he also advised people not to just take his word for it.

He pointed to a recent CNN Money Magazine examination of the top 100 places to live in the United States that specifically looked at towns with populations from 50,000 to 300,000. Of the preliminary list of 744 eligible towns, communities with a median family income of more than 200% or less than 85% of the state average were eliminated, knocking it down to 401 communities. The ranking also took out retirement communities and towns with major job losses, leaving the list to be based on job growth, home affordability, safety, school quality, health care, diversity and culture, among other criteria.

“Out of that 100 they looked at those communities and looked at things like access, traffic and gathering places and intangibles like community spirit,” Mr. Tesei said. “Out of all of that we were 29 out of 100 nationally. I think that says a lot about who we are and what makes us appealing. Only one other community in Connecticut ranked and that was Fairfield. Interestingly, we often compare ourselves to Fairfield based on geographic characteristics, form of government and population demographics.”

The community spirit part particularly struck Mr. Tesei because he said it was easy to see at events like the annual Memorial Day Parade in Old Greenwich, festivities in Roger Sherman Baldwin Park and philanthropic fund-raisers for non-profits.

“To me that is community and we’ve got that in spades,” Mr. Tesei said, adding that the rank from CNN came “on the heels” of Connecticut Magazine naming Greenwich number one in its population category.

Community interest

Mr. Tesei made these remarks at his annual “State of the Town” luncheon address to the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. Before an audience of town officials, including his colleagues on the Board of Selectmen, State Rep. Lile Gibbons (R-150), political candidates and business leaders, Mr. Tesei said he had been told in prior years that he did better at these events when he did not read from prepared text. So if there was a prepared speech for the luncheon, he didn’t use it and instead spoke off the top of his head.

“We’re all here today because we share one common interest and that’s that we care about the community we call Greenwich,” Mr. Tesei said. “When we talk about community it may have slightly different permutations to all of us, but to me it’s people and people here have a relationship to Greenwich as a place to live, as a place to work and a place to have fun. We feel, speaking for myself but I think for all of you as well, that Greenwich is an exceptional community both for residents and as a place for people to locate their businesses in.”

Mr. Tesei talked about business in Greenwich and what makes the town a community that’s attractive to business. He said it went hand in hand with the fact that this is a good place to live and cited a conversation he had recently had with a business owner.

“I asked this gentlemen what made him choose Greenwich as opposed to elsewhere and he said, ‘To tell you the truth, I could have chosen to locate my business in Stamford and from an economic viewpoint that would have been better. But I like the fact that I can be in downtown Greenwich and go out to lunch but more importantly I like to be able to take my child to school every day and be close by and engaged in what they’re doing in their lives,’” Mr. Tesei said. “I think that’s unique about Greenwich. We are Greenwich. We are not Stamford. We are not Darien. By saying that I mean no insult to those communities, but we are unique. We are not a large business center like Stamford is with its corporate offices and skyscrapers. Nor are we a pristine residential community exclusively. We’re a slight combination of both and I think that’s what’s important to acknowledge and to affirm us being a successful model.”

Challenges ahead

Mr. Tesei talked about the structure of Greenwich government and the cooperation and patience that are required to see things through in town. He admitted it can be “frustrating at times” to see how much meeting and discussion it takes to reach consensus, but “things worth fighting for sometimes take time.” Mr. Tesei talked about the implementation of the Plan of Conservation and Development and how it was leading to an improvement of the “town green” behind the Havemeyer Building that leads to the back of Town Hall.

He also focused on the challenges that are facing Greenwich, specifically the continued recovery from the 2008 economic downturn that has left the town with continued tight budgets. He said his discussions with people continue to show that Greenwich’s low tax rate, especially compared to neighboring communities, drew residents in and that “this matters to people.”

“We’re working hard to balance that with the need to invest in public infrastructure as well as key services,” Mr. Tesei said, noting that of the $367-million municipal budget, $105 million of that goes to “town services” that includes police, fire and town departments like Public Works and Parks and Recreation, and $140 million of which goes to the town’s public school system. Mr. Tesei said since 2009, the town’s spending in this area has gone up 1.2% and schools have gone up 11.5%, something he cited as being due to rising costs embedded in contracts that are part of a state-mandated system.

“Even if people say, as they often do, have a wage freeze, extend the work day, privatize this and privatize that, they have to remember that these things have to be negotiated through a state arbitration process,” Mr. Tesei said. “People say, ‘Well you can just do that’ but we can’t. We have to go through this process and Connecticut is a very labor-friendly state in terms of the governance and the people appointed to these panels by in large. The chance of them saying that Greenwich will be given a waiver to have wage freezes and extend the work day and add co-pays for health care up to 20% in one fell swoop is not reality. It’s not going to happen. It’s a process by which we negotiate and have give and take.”

Health care costs

Mr. Tesei said there has been progress through the negotiations but there’s going to be “a lot of attention” on this in coming years. In his remarks, he also took the opportunity to speak on health care costs for town employees. He said the town currently spends $45 million for employee health care and another $5.8 million on retirees. Without the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Tesei said that by 2018, the town would have an estimated $92-million commitment to health care, but with the act it goes up to $122 million. He said this was an estimate done by an “outside insurance broker who is helping communities looking at the impact of this law.”

“This is a big bite and it means that taxes are going to be increasingly harder to keep low,” Mr. Tesei said. “Initiatives at the federal and state level are going to have a direct impact on your local, residential property taxes. There’s no other way to slice it. It’s reality.”

He said this leaves the town with “finite options” to respond and that he said this to “educate” people about choices to be made. Mr. Tesei didn’t specifically mention either the upcoming presidential or congressional elections, where he has exhibited strong personal support for the Republican candidates, but did say that there are “severe financial implications” for the town as the result of federal and state actions.

“They warrant hitting the ‘pause button’ and taking another look at this,” Mr. Tesei said. “There is a limit in what our government can do for us.”

Chamber Executive Director Marcia O’Kane said that the luncheon remains a key part of the organization’s work to serve as an “advocate between town businesses and town government.” Jeff Weber, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, noted that there were 131 people in attendance for the event and thanked everyone for attending, giving particular thanks to the event’s co-sponsors, the Greenwich Water Club and Wells Fargo Bank.

In his remarks, Mr. Tesei said the state of Greenwich was something that everyone contributed to.

“The state of the town is very good,” Mr. Tesei said. “We have something special here and it’s not by accident. It’s through the hard work of a lot of people. It’s through a willingness to invest in our community through your businesses, to invest in real estate and to support our community organizations that are providing services to other residents in our community.”


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