Budget guidelines going in for revisions

The Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET)’s budget guidelines are still a work in progress, and members of the Board of Selectmen are making sure they’re heard on them first.

At the board’s Oct. 4 meeting, First Selectman Peter Tesei said he had sent “collective thoughts” from himself and town department heads last month to BET Budget Committee Chairman Joseph Pellegrino about the “tone and tenor” of the existing draft. Nothing in the guidelines has been approved yet, but Mr. Tesei indicated there was concern from Town Hall’s perspective about what was being expected in terms of cost savings.

“The letter said that we have had a history of working collaboratively with the various town bodies on the budget,” Mr. Tesei said. “That means the departments, the citizenry and the BET. I think it’s important to maintain that level of discourse and continuity in tone as we go forward, because undoubtedly it is going to be a difficult year if any of the projections we have today hold true, and there’s no reason to believe they will not.”

In the letter, Mr. Tesei said the town takes issue with “the BET’s perception that there has been a lack of improvement in the productivity in town government and failure to make changes that the BET has proposed.” He notes the BET does not have a day-to-day role in the operation of most of town government and that while the board can make suggestions, “these comments are often outside of your statutory authority.”

Mr. Tesei adds in the letter that the feedback he received from town departments was one of “disappointment” that the BET didn’t seem to understand the “legal and operational environment in which the town operates.” He said the draft “created the wrong tone for doing business in our government structure” and was “highly subjective” and “without merit.”

At the Oct. 4 meeting, Mr. Tesei said the initial draft of the guidelines were written by Mr. Pellegrino and “were reflective of his initial point of view” and that he wanted to make sure he was aware of the ways town government has already worked to save money through his administration and the efforts of department heads.

“That should not be overlooked,” Mr. Tesei said. “If we’re going to talk about efficiencies we’re going to have to be specific and not just say, ‘Oh, we can be more efficient.’ If you’re going to say that, you have to say how specifically so and what it will take to achieve that. It’s not always easy to achieve in an environment where you have collective bargaining agreements and mandates coming down from the state. Oftentimes we’re boxed into a position of time. You have to negotiate these things or you can reach the decision to reduce services by reducing head count.”

Mr. Tesei noted that the town had let go of town employees as part of layoffs in 2009 to try to close a large budget deficit caused by decreased revenues as a result of economic conditions. He said those layoffs left the town “essentially down 50 positions” and that it was done without “an appreciable loss in the level of service.”

“When you talk about efficiency, I would argue very strongly that we’re doing the same thing we did four or five years ago with 50 less people,” Mr. Tesei said. “There’s always room for improvement. I would never say there wasn’t, but to say that nothing or little has been done is to minimize the great efforts that were made. This is not just about me. It’s about ‘we.’ This is about [Town Administrator John Crary], it’s about our labor force, it’s about those in the RTM that support agreements. It’s about everyone agreeing to move forward in a unified fashion.”

Mr. Tesei added that he has “great confidence” in Mr. Pellegrino and all the members of the BET but he felt this needed to be said. Selectman Drew Marzullo also chimed in on this at the meeting, saying Mr. Tesei was right to send the letter. Later, in an interview with The Post, Mr. Marzullo elaborated and said he was particularly focused on the idea that the Board of Education would have to defer maintenance on buildings because the BET feels enough has been spent on capital with major ongoing projects like the new central fire station, The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew and the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School.

Currently the Board of Education has said it’s looking at about $10 million in capital expenses for 2013-14 and the BET has indicated in the draft of the guidelines that $8 million is what they’re willing to live with.

“What are you going to do? Are you not going to repair the roof on the school?” Mr. Marzullo said to The Post. “What are you going to cut?”

He said that the BET’s initial draft was based solely on Mr. Pellegrino’s opinion and on “false assumptions.” He did add, though, that he was happy to see Mr. Pellegrino working with the town on a revision, noting that Greenwich has “a collaborative system of government” and that he understands this will be a “tough year.” Mr. Marzullo said he felt the initial draft wouldn’t have passed the Budget Committee and that would have sent “mixed messages,” so he was glad revisions were being made.

Mr. Pellegrino told The Post this week that he appreciated the comments sent by the selectmen and that he has wanted this kind of open conversation about the guidelines all along. That’s why, he said, they have been discussing this in open meetings the public is invited to attend. The next of these meetings is set for Monday, Oct. 15, at 3 p.m. in the Cone Room in Town Hall, and the revisions being made to the new draft are slated to be discussed there.

“I think this is the biggest difference from years past,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “In prior years we wouldn’t be having these public discussions as drafts are being put together.”

He said he received Mr. Tesei’s letter and understands what he’s trying to say.

“He raised some very good points, and we’ll see in the next draft that it reflects a number of comments, not just his, but also other members of the BET,” Mr. Pellegrino said.

The final draft of the budget guidelines is slated to be approved by the Budget Committee at its Nov. 13 meeting and then voted upon by the full BET on Nov. 19. The guidelines are not binding, but they do give a strong idea of what the BET wants when town department budgets are handed in next year.

But what Mr. Pellegrino says he is mostly focused on is what he says has emerged from the preliminary discussions about the budget, the fact that even with a mill rate increase higher than what the town has had in recent years, there will still be a budget gap. He told The Post that based on BET discussions with town budget director Roland Geiger if the town holds to just the level of services it offers now and increases the mill rate by 2.5% there will be a budget gap of more than $10 million. Mr. Pellegrino said that even if the rate is increased to 3.5%, which is above what has happened in the immediate past years, there will still be a gap of more than $7 million.

“That’s the key point right there,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “It’s the single most important thing we’re facing.”

As Mr. Tesei has recently, Mr. Pellegrino sounded the alarm on the town’s fixed charges, which are contractually obligated, saying the rising commitment to the town’s pension plan, which has been pegged at $19.9 million in 2013-14, and rising health care costs, estimated right now at $49 million for that fiscal year, are what’s causing this gap.

The new draft of the guidelines is expected to reflect all of this, and discussion is ongoing about how big the mill rate increase will be for this year. Mr. Pellegrino said he personally is more in favor of keeping it closer to 2.5%, but others on the BET are advocating something closer to 3.5%.

“We need to determine a mill rate increase that is appropriate for the times we live in,” Mr. Pellegrino said.


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