BET Approves ’18-’19 Town Budget
By Richard Kaufman
After eight hours of discussion and debate, the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation unanimously approved the town’s 2018-2019 budget at the stroke of midnight last Tuesday morning.
The $426 million budget will now go to the Representative Town Meeting in May for final adoption.
BET members worked through nearly 50 motions in the Town Hall Meeting Room late Monday afternoon into the night, as the now Democrat-controlled board used the tie-breaking vote numerous times. The Democrats won control of the board last fall in the town election.
On the operating side of the budget, the board approved the allocation of $30,000 to continue funding Think Greenwich, First Selectman Peter Tesei’s marketing program.
However, with a vote of 7-6 after the tie-breaker from chair Jill Oberlander, the board approved a motion set forth by Jeff Ramer which stated that Tesei must first come before the BET with a “full economic development plan for the town” before the funds are released.
A debate surrounding a suitable economic plan has been going on between Tesei and Selectman, Sandy Litvack. Republican BET member, Michael Mason, argued against Ramer’s motion.
“I don’t think the BET should be part of a debate that’s been going on in the Selectman’s office about an economic development plan for the town,” Mason said. “I think when, and if they decide they want one, we should make the decision about whether we want to finance it or not.”
Fellow Republican board member, Karen Fassuliotis, agreed with Mason.
“I’ve heard many times on this board that we shouldn’t be micromanaging departments and, by the very nature of this condition, we could be seeing this as micromanaging a department,” she said.
Much of the discussion in the early goings of the budget meeting centered around the Board of Education’s $160.3 million budget. Mason put forth a motion to cut funding by $166,699 to put it within BET guidelines, but it eventually failed along party lines.
Mason, and the other Republicans, said that it’s time for the BOE to reexamine headcount growth and the rising costs of schools, and that the BOE needs to work with the BET to find more efficiencies in its operations, without sacrificing education.
“We all know [this reduction] will not impact the school’s operation one bit,” Mason said.
Democrat BET member, Beth Krumeich, said that reviewing headcount is the Board of Ed’s responsibility, and that the finance board shouldn’t be stepping into that arena.
“I would very much vote against this particular amendment, but I do agree that we need to seek accountability from the BOE and that there ought to be more teamwork as we go forward. I’m looking forward to that with our new superintendent, Dr. Jill Gildea.”
Fassuliotis noted that by adding headcount to the BOE, town healthcare costs increase, especially after retirement. “You’re adding increased cost to the town, which means there’s additional stressors to other parts of our budget. We can’t continue to sustain this. Other towns are getting it; Greenwich needs to get it to.”
BET member, Tony Turner, said he was saddened by what his fellow board members were saying.
“One dollar too much, one dollar of cut in an educational program, when the most important thing to a child is education, is completely unfounded,” he said. “I’m going to vote against the reduction. I want to know what goes on in the classroom, and progress of the child. That’s what we should be concerned about.”
Elsewhere, Ramer looked to restore the Director of Inland Wetlands & Watercourse Agency to a full-time position, and separate it from the Conservation Director. Tesei had called for a consolidation of the two positions, which would then report to an environmental services director. The motion failed 3-9.
“This is not case where we are doing away with either agency. It is a case where this consolidation would allow for more coordination between the two agencies by having the oversight of one director,” Fassuliotis argued.
A motion by Mason to reduce the salaries ($83,825) needed to promote four firefighters to lieutenant, specifically to supervise the tower truck, failed 6-6.
“I think we’re moving towards every piece of equipment now being structured to have an officer or lieutenant on the piece of equipment when there are plenty of officers on scene,” Mason said, citing no need for an upgrade.
Ramer opposed the cut, saying, “There’s nothing more important in the budgeting process than public safety.” Ramer argued that there should be proper command control of each fire scene.
After the motion failed, Ramer made a motion which conditioned the release of the $83,825 upon the resolution of the pending labor arbitration. The vote carried, 9-0-3.
The BET then voted 6-5-1 to increase the Human Services budget by $45,000. The funds will be released on the condition that the BET reviews and approves requests for the additional funding.
Turner noted the 11,000 people in Greenwich who are at, or below, the poverty line, and the financial conditions of the state as reasons why the funding should be increased.
“April 1 is just around the corner,” he said. “There are families in this town that will have to decide between rent, food, medicine or heat, and we have to be ever-mindful of that.”
On the capital side of the budget, the BET unanimously voted on a motion set by Ramer to place a condition on the $4.9 million associated with the Sound Beach Avenue Bridge project. The funds are to be released upon the commitment from the state to reimburse.
The board also voted unanimously to place a condition on the Byram Fire Station upgrades. “My concern here, is that we’ve been given no information, no schematics, no verbal description, nothing to suggest what exactly is the scope of the work,” Ramer said.
The $3 million in funding for the station renovations and upgrades will be released upon BET review and acceptance of project bids.
On the ongoing issue of fields around town, the BET voted to keep $300,000 set aside for a feasibility study which would create a new playing field, likely at Central Middle School. Western Middle School is unavailable due to ongoing environmental problems, and Eastern was never a real option for the BOE.
Tarkington, who called for the motion to delete the funds, said that additional due diligence is needed prior to moving forward with the project.
“If we continue to delay this, we will just have more issues,” said BOE chair, Peter Bernstein.
“We don’t have a lot of fields in town,” said BET member, Bill Drake.”This should go forward on behalf of youth sports and adult sports in our town.”
Towards the end of the budget vote meeting, board members held a lengthy discussion regarding the budget’s bonding resolution. Oberlander pushed for the option of a 20-year maturity for bonds. Democrats said the change would allow for more flexibility, but Republicans wouldn’t budge, citing it would bring future debt to the town and cause financial troubles.
After a short recess, the board reconvened, and Oberlander chose not to use her tie-breaking vote to enact such a change, which would have eventually led to a deadlocked overall budget vote. Instead, Oberlander said she wants to have a more in depth discussion on the matter in the future.
Right as the clock struck midnight, the 2018-2019 budget passed unanimously. The RTM will now have the final say in May.