These are extraordinary times. No one ever imagined that a single virus would bring havoc and take the lives of so many loved ones in our town and beyond. We remember those who we lost and offer our sympathies to their families. Your loss is our community’s loss.
The pandemic is also taking a toll on others as well. As this is being written, the number of unemployed Americans are staggering. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans are now out of work. The U.S. unemployment rate has reached 20%, if you combine the number of Americans who were jobless before the pandemic, with the number of Americans who are now jobless during the pandemic. To put it in perspective, the number of individuals who are jobless in 2020 has surpassed the highest of levels of unemployment following the 2008 financial crisis of 15.3 million Americans. Our neighbors in Greenwich have not been immune to what is happening nationwide. Many find themselves now unemployed or, if retired, with lowered investment income.
With this in mind, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) has passed a budget that now goes to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for consideration and a final vote. The RTM can either further reduce the budget or make no changes. Once the RTM acts, the budget will then be the budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021.
Locally, we voted this budget knowing that many of our neighbors are unemployed or have found their salaries reduced significantly because they are not considered “essential” and are working reduced hours. And, of course, there are those who are on fixed income who are wondering if their social security will be reduced significantly. We also voted this budget knowing that our RTM provided some relief to all our taxpayers by voting to extend the tax due date from July 1 to October 1. The so-called “rainy day” fund will be needed to allow the town to continue to operate until then. Whether many of our neighbors will be able to pay their taxes when their tax bill becomes due remains to be seen.
BET Republicans heard from many individuals during the budget process. We applaud those that took time out to make their voices heard. We would be remiss if we did not recognize those who voiced their opinion that the BET Republicans were overreacting, especially with respect to the education budget, and that we did not need to reduce spending at the levels we had proposed, or that the economy would rebound quickly.
We valued each of these voices as we deliberated before passing a budget. In making the difficult final decision to keep spending flat, BET Republicans believe it would have been reckless to continue to act as though the economy is going to rebound quickly or that it is “business as usual”. Even our Democratic colleagues realized that it could not be “business as usual”, and our caucus worked hard to reach a consensus with our colleagues, which, in the end, was not possible.
Ultimately, the BET Republicans decided on a relatively conservative approach to the FY 2021 recommended budget. The budget passed by the BET keeps spending by both the town and the Education Department to 2020 levels, the current fiscal year budget amounts. Once the RTM acts, it is then up to the First Selectman, Town Boards and Commissions, and the Superintendent of Schools, in consultation with the Board of Education (BOE) to determine how to meet the spending levels contemplated by this budget.
These town leaders need to find a solution as to how this spending will be done in a way that will not impact the services and education for our kids that members of our community have come to expect. It is likely that a dialog with the various labor union leaders, who undoubtedly understand the impact of the economic shutdown, both locally and at the state level, will be part of the solution to minimize department costs and not impact service levels to the residents they serve. It is our hope that all of these leaders will work in partnership in the year ahead, which will likely be a difficult year for members of our community. We challenge them to all work together in the month and year to come.
We do not have a crystal ball to know how long the pandemic will last, but we do acknowledge that all our lives have changed as a result of it. How long the economy will take to recover to pre-pandemic levels is anybody’s guess. By all accounts it may be many years before that will happen. The budget passed by the BET is a small step in recognizing that we are all in this together. And together we will emerge a stronger community.
Michael Mason, BET Chair
Karen Fassuliotis, BET Vice-Chair