Budget committee deadlocked on guidelines

Debate over the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s (BET’s) 2013-14 budget guidelines is heading to the full board without resolution after the budget committee deadlocked on its vote Tuesday night.

The guidelines are non-binding, but they do provide an indication to town departments about what will and won’t be met favorably when they submit budgets next year. The practice has been going on for 13 years, and this is the first time the committee has not been able to produce an agreed-upon document. However, given the visible split between the Republican and Democratic caucuses on the four-person committee over what range should be recommended to increase the mill rate, the vote was not a surprise on Tuesday.

The two-two split had been expected, and now the guidelines will go before the full BET for consideration on Monday night at a meeting beginning at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall Meeting Room. Since no guidelines have been approved, the full board will consider the final existing draft, which Democrats feel calls for too small a mill rate increase, something they say will adversely impact the delivery of town services. BET Democrats, who make up half the 12-person board, are expected to introduce an alternate draft on Monday.

At the heart of the debate is the recommended range for increasing the mill rate in town. Republicans, citing an economic climate they feel demands a more conservative policy, have recommended a mill rate closer to a 2.5% increase over this year. Democrats, saying that will hinder delivery of services and potentially lead to cutbacks, have recommended a range between 2% and 4%, which has been the traditional BET model.

Before the vote was taken, each of the four members of the budget committee spoke to explain his or her position. Committee Chairman Joseph Pellegrino said his goal was to be able to put forth a budget that would get at least seven votes from the BET to pass and that the guidelines, which call for the lower mill rate and an increased demand for efficiencies in town government, reflect economic reality.

“I question what all these services are that we offer our citizens,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “I’m not talking about the most important services like police, fire, GEMS, and support of The Nathaniel Witherell and our schools. We offer a lot of other services that start ticking away at how much we end up charging our citizens in taxes. Whether we’re coming out of the recession or not, the fact is that it’s been a brutal five years, and the fact that we don’t adjust our mill rate to reflect economic conditions, to me, is a stumbling block. If we always are going to have a 3.5% increase hypothetically, why even have a board? We should be building budgets relative to the economic environment we’re in.”

Republican Leslie Tarkington said that having a range again could end up being a good compromise, but because of the economy “that range would have to move downward.”

“Many residents have contacted me over the past couple of months regarding the budget and its related property taxes, and their input and insight has been extremely helpful,” Ms. Tarkington said. “The economy remains soft, and Greenwich citizens, I believe, are tightly managing their family budgets. They expect the BET to do the same with the town budget.”

Democrats Jeffrey Ramer and WIlliam Finger argued that there was not a good reason to change course away from the traditional BET mill rate increases. Mr. Ramer said people needed to remember that compared to nearby communities, like New Canaan and Westport, Greenwich’s taxes remain low and would do so even with the traditional increase in the mill rate, which he said is the lowest in the state. He also cited statistics showing Greenwich with a stronger grand list and less debt than neighboring communities.

“On a per capita basis we don’t pay a lot of taxes in this town,” Mr. Ramer said. “Our taxes are less than most of the gold coast communities we like to compare ourselves to. … It doesn’t feel that we tax our citizens too heavily. That’s not a reason to go out and tax them more heavily, but it is a reason to respond to people who come to us and say that the heavy yoke of taxation should be relieved on the shoulders of our citizens.”

Mr. Finger agreed, saying that keeping things to only a 2.5% increase was an “incredibly draconian cut” and called it a “hard cap” on the town budget which he was “totally opposed to.”

“There has always been a range, and this for the first time eliminates that range,” Mr. Finger said.

Mr. Pellegrino said having a range was something that could be discussed, but because of economic conditions it would have to be in the 2.5% to 3% range, not up to 4 %.

First Selectman Peter Tesei spoke at the beginning of the meeting to update the budget committee on his own work. Mr. Tesei next year will submit his consolidated budget, after which it will have to be approved by first the budget committee and then the BET as a whole so it can be sent to the Representative Town Meeting. On Tuesday, Mr. Tesei said because of the uncertainty surrounding the budget guidelines, all town departments were being asked to submit budgets based on several potential outcomes. One budget would be based on a 2% increase in the mill rate, another would follow the traditional 2% to 4% increase and the other would be based on keeping everything flat from the current year.

“I know there are folks who would like to see no mill rate increase, and I suppose we can draw that up along with the others, but clearly that will reflect a critical diminution of service in the town,” Mr. Tesei said. “Anyone who wants to argue otherwise clearly has not passed the municipal budget test. … We’re not just sitting around waiting. We have people thinking about the possible scenarios.”

Mr. Finger responded to this by telling his Republican colleagues, “The risk you run by passing guidelines like this is to nullify the effect of guidelines. As Peter Tesei has said, he’s told his departments to prepare budgets at different levels. Essentially the message has gotten out there, but there was no need to tell him he was capped at 2%. He’s essentially telling you in a nice way that he’s ignoring your guidelines.”

 

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