RTM Approves Town Budget, Delays Board of Education Resolution
By Richard Kaufman
When the Representative Town Meeting comes together every year in the spring to approve Greenwich’s budget, debate and analysis on motions to cut funding usually stretches well into the night.
But on Monday, the town body swiftly approved the $448 million spending plan for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, by a vote of 158 in favor, 61 opposed, and four abstentions. The process took about 30 minutes, and no motions were made.
This year’s budget process was unusual due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Board of Estimate and Taxation Budget Committee approved a $459.8 million budget, which was then carved down to $448 million by the BET in late April as the economic fallout from the pandemic was felt. The annual RTM meeting to approve the budget was pushed back a month, from it’s usual early May date to Monday.
“I would like to emphasize that we, the BET, consider this budget as a deviation from typical years and our budget guidelines — a true judgement call based on the impacts of COVID-19 and not having our crystal ball to rely on,” said BET chair, Michael Mason, in his comments to the RTM.
Mason recalled that last October before COVID-19 even existed, in crafting budget guidelines for this upcoming fiscal year, it was noted that Greenwich had “left the status quo as for budgets.”
“This certainly is not a status quo budget,” Mason said on Monday. “All the leadership in town will be more challenged than ever. Our residents and business owners will see different impacts from the economic storm. They all need to be part of the dialogue and informed continually.”
In reaction to the economic impact from the coronavirus, the town’s capital budget was reduced and projects were delayed. Additionally in late April, all town department operating budgets were held to where they are in the current (2019-2020) fiscal year budget.
“It’s important to note that all the town obligations are funded — pension, retirement, OPEB, debt service, healthcare, workers compensation, unemployment expenses, and so on,” Mason added.
The decision in late April to hold town departments steady meant that requests for $367,471 to the police department, $143,011 to the fire department, and $501,128 to the Highways in the Department of Public Works did not make it into the budget, among other items.
Three million dollars for the Board of Education was also not included. This decision caused outcry from scores of residents, who had protested in front of Town Hall in April, and sent emails to town officials asking them to reconsider.
Superintendent of Greenwich Public Schools, Dr. Toni Jones, has said that absence of $3 million could result in staffing cuts and changes to programming.
Subsequently, a Sense of the Meeting Resolution (SOMR) for the RTM, which urged the BET to “act swiftly and grant interim appropriations to the Board of Education for the 2020-21 fiscal school year” was created by RTM members Mareta Hamre and Janet McMahon.
The non-binding resolution went before the RTM on Monday night following the budget vote.
However, after over three hours of debate, the item was not voted on because a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules requiring a “second reading” of the item was not achieved. The vote to suspend the rules failed: 120 in support to proceed with a vote on Monday, 88 opposed with no abstentions. The RTM meeting adjourned shortly before 1 a.m.
According to the rules of the RTM under “Second Reading”, a resolution on the call shall be presented with discussion at one meeting, and then the item would be moved to the next regularly scheduled meeting for more discussion before a vote.
Because the rules were not suspended, and because the RTM does not meet in the summer, the item was moved to September when the town body reconvenes.
The discussion portion on the SOMR featured over 50 speakers.
McMahon said that for a decade, the BET has “quietly put the Board of Education (BOE) on a starvation diet”, where it was mandated that the BOE was not to exceed a two percent increase in their operating expenses.
“In order to meet these austere guidelines, the BOE has had to sustain cuts year after year until finally these compounded cuts have brought us to where we are now, a woefully underfunded budget with a $1.5 million shortfall in special education and about 90 percent of our operating budget going towards contractual obligations and fixed costs. We simply have no more fat to cut, except our teachers,” McMahon said. “This SOMR is actually almost 10 years in the making. All things do eventually reach a breaking point, and our breaking point came in the form of a pandemic.”
She noted that instead of investing in the school system, the BET used the pandemic as a “convenient scapegoat to starve the BOE budget further.”
Mary Ellen Markowitz, an RTM member from District 2, urged her fellow members to support the SOMR.
“I feel that budgets are moral documents, especially the Board of Education budget. It directly affects our children and the important people who educate them, and we can afford to fund our public schools. If we do not, the consequences will be great and our children will suffer,” she said.
Markowitz heard from an English teacher at Greenwich High School about how the flat budget will affect her department.
“In the past, her department has had a shortage of books, and with this budget cut, it’s been made clear that they can’t place orders for more in this upcoming academic year,” Markowitz added.
Wynn McDaniel of District 7 urged the town body to vote no on the SOMR, adding that she believes the $3 million, equivalent to 1.5 percent of the whole BOE budget, could be procured elsewhere.
“The proposed budget is flat, it’s not reduced like many other towns in Connecticut,” she noted. “I can’t believe that 1.5 percent can’t be procured after a bottoms up review of the budget. Yes, there will be investments, but there will also be savings. I ask the BOE to examine both.”
Laura Gladstone from District 2, and others who opposed the SOMR, asked that teachers take pay freezes for a year while continuing to fully fund pensions.
Alex Popp, a teacher in the Greenwich Public Schools system and an RTM member from District 4, opposed the SOMR, calling it “distracting.”
“The SOMR has divided the town, neighbor against neighbor. The tone has been unprecedented and mean spirited,” he said. “The SOMR has been counterproductive. It’s distracting from the work that needs to be done. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and it has consumed countless hours of our administrative time that should have been used to develop plans for next September’s school year.”
The next RTM meeting will be held on Sept. 21, and debate around the BOE budget figures to continue.