By Richard Kaufman
After hours of discussion and virtual meetings, the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation approved a $450.5 million budget with a 11.624% mill rate for the fiscal year 2021-2022 on Tuesday, sending the spending plan to the RTM for final adoption next month.
The BET first met for its “Decision Day” deliberations last Thursday to cut, add, or condition funds within the budget. Since business was not completed over the course of the day, the Board reconvened on Tuesday to finish up.
Seven votes are needed to pass a budget on the BET. Six Republicans voted in favor, and six Democrats voted against it. But BET Chair and Republican Michael Mason used his tie-breaking vote to send the budget to the RTM.
“I’m going to vote yes for the budget, because I think it’s beneficial for the town to send the budget to the RTM at this point in time,” Mason said. Had Mason left the vote at 6-6, the RTM would have considered the appropriations from this year to roll over into the next fiscal year, meaning there would be no capital projects and no increase to any budgetary item since the RTM cannot add to a spending plan when they meet to approve it. Mason said not approving a budget was not a wise thing to do.
Mason’s tie-breaking vote to approve the budget was a microcosm of much of the Decision Day discussions, which featured several party line votes which tipped in the Republicans’ favor because they hold a majority on the board.
On Tuesday after the vote, Mason pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a major factor in decision making, and he mentioned increased partisanship playing a role on the board.
“I look at this zero vote on [the Democrat] side, and there’s a message there,” Mason said of the final budget vote. “Politics was brought to this board, and it has not left. I’ve [currently] served the longest on the BET, I can tell you this used to be an incredible board, and it’s not the same now. Part of it is Zoom and COVID, and I understand that. It’s very hard to do government in this fashion.”
After the vote, each member gave brief comments on the budget, and democrats voiced their displeasure about the partisanship on the board.
BET member and Democratic caucus leader, Leslie Moriarty, said the BET “missed a tremendous opportunity to properly plan for the future.”
“I don’t take a vote against the budget lightly, but the vote approved today, 7-6, does not move our town proudly into the future and I can’t support it,” she said, pointing to votes that cut funding for renovations at Julian Curtiss, as well as funding for a feasibility study at Central Middle School, and for an East-West bike path across town.
“The BET had an opportunity to reduce the pressure of the proper funding of capital by increasing the cash amount put towards capital projects, and by utilizing the financial markets more appropriately to address the soil remediation projects, but the BET didn’t take it,” Moriarty added. “This budget lacks vision and proper planning for our town.”
BET member Laura Erickson, a democrat, said she “regrettably” voted against the budget.
“This is the second year in a row we’ve been in a hyper-partisan, knock-down, drag-out fight over some basic principles. I don’t think we’ve set ourselves up for the future,” she said.
Republican Debra Hess said she was disappointed by what Erickson had to say, and that “it would be nice to not have some of these votes be so partisan.” Hess said she believes the board members want the same things for the community, but perhaps the approach could be different. She noted that in the future, the BET will have to manage “trying to balance what’s good for our community, and nice, new shiny things and operating our town.”
Republican and BET Vice-Chair, Karen Fassuliotis, spoke about COVID and how it has impacted many in town.
“I can’t ignore the fact that many in our town are reeling from the impact of COVID, both through the loss of loved ones, and the economic impact that they have sustained. I understand the impacts many businesses and households are feeling this year. This budget may not be everything everyone wanted,” Fassuliotis said. “I do hope that going forward, we can find a way to work together to find common ground, and to compromise a bit as we move forward to the next fiscal year.”
BET member Jeff Ramer called the decision day deliberations, which began last Thursday, “a long catalog” of votes along party lines.
“In all the time I’ve been here, I can’t remember there being this many party line votes as we’ve experienced over the last two budget years,” Ramer, a democrat, said. “I believe there to be something fundamentally wrong with a board of 12 people that’s divided six and six this way to the point where a minority party begins to feel that they’re irrelevant window dressing in a process that ought to be about dialogue and cooperation. And frankly, it’s just not.”
Julian Curtiss School
One of the most debated issues of the Decision Day budget process on Tuesday revolved around Julian Curtiss School, and the $1.7 million price tag for a renovation plan that included better ADA accessibility, essential security and air quality upgrades, common area space adjustments, a science room and two pre-K classrooms.
The Board voted 7-6, with Mason casting the tie breaking vote, to reduce funding by $1.5 million, leaving $200,000 for the Board of Education to have the resources necessary to revise the educational specifications for the plan. Mason said the current ed. specs expanded space and programming, which in turn increased the project cost estimate.
“This project has full support… It’s a tremendous project. But the JC educational specifications currently approve items above the KG&D architect study. There are things that are not included in the educational specs that I think the board should have considered,” Mason said.
Fassuliotis supported the reduction. She said there is total support from the BET for the renovation, but she pointed to declining enrollment as a reason why the ed. specs should be revised.
“Given the current enrollments, the Board of Education should be renovating existing spaces, not building more excess capacity, especially in this school which is 75 students below what was projected, and is projected to decline again. This reduction will allow the Board of Education to do just that — to deliver ed. specs for Julian Curtiss that renovates the school without building excess capacity. Our kids and our community deserve no less.”
During the BET public hearing on the budget last week, several parents from the Julian Curtiss School community voiced the need to keep the funding as is at $1.7 million.
BET member Beth Krumeich said the board should listen to the community.
“We’ve heard from a lot of the community that they support the changes to Julian Curtiss School now. That’s a very old building with a need for a lot of renovations,” she said. “I think we’re being short sighted and that we are overstepping our role as the finance board. Our job, as I understand it, is to determine the financing for the projects that the BOE has gotten behind and that the community has gotten behind.”
Moriarty said she was concerned about delaying the project for at least a year, which would affect other school building projects around town.
“Our school facilities do not match the quality of our teachers or our educational program. They do not match the need of the delivery methods that our teachers are using, and the need for breakout spaces, and the need for programs for larger groups. It certainly doesn’t match the needs of the expectations of our residents and our parents and our students,” Moriarty said. “I don’t think there is justification to defer these needs.”
Mason said there’s no reason for the project to be delayed for a year.
“I hear it’s insinuated that this is a one year delay. The Board of Education can revisit ed. specs next week and have a dialogue with us. There’s no reason to say this is one year,” he said.
Eastern Greenwich Civic Center
An amendment to place conditions on the $18.6 million for a new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center was approved 7-6, with Mason once again providing the tie-breaking vote.
Funds will be subject to release by the BET following “the confirmation of a substantial public/private partnership.”
Krumeich said she was against the amendment, and urged the BET to move forward with plans for a new EGCC, regardless if private third parties support the project. She said the project has been asked for for years.
Fassuliotis said the BET has conditioned other projects such as the Byram Pool and the Western Greenwich Civic Center, and that a condition for the civic center would not preclude it from going forward in the future.
BET member David Weisbrod said he wanted to give First Selectman Fred Camillo more leeway to continue his discussions and negotiations on a public/private partnership, and didn’t want to “shackle that or inhibit that by imposing this condition.”
Central Middle School
A motion to delete $102,000 for a feasibility study to determine the need for a new Central Middle School was approved 7-6.
Mason said the reasoning behind the motion had to do with the Board of Education’s prioritization of Central Middle School.
Fassuliotis said she would have supported keeping the funding in the budget if Greenwich Public Schools had made CMS a higher priority.
“I think if the Board of Education wants to make this a priority school — they’ve set the priorities, they basically put this out a number a years — then they should reset their priorities, and make CMS their top priority, then I can get behind doing studies and figuring out what needs to be done,” she said.
Krumeich said that given what recently happened with North Mianus School’s unexpected ceiling collapse, the study should go forward so the school district can find out “what’s happening behind the walls and up in the ceilings” of CMS.
“I just think this is an important request by the Board of Education to be able to actually know more, and learn more before we make a decision and they make a decision on priority,” she said.
Other Items of Note from Tuesday
Elsewhere, a motion to delete $500,000 for proposed intersection improvements in central Greenwich failed by a vote of 3-9.
Instead, a condition was placed on the $500,000 upon the review and approval of conceptual plans and an itemized budget for intersection improvements. A written report on community engagement, outreach, and public hearings on the projects will be provided by the Department of Public Works.
The deletion of $350,000 slated for the Holly Hill Transfer Station was approved with a tie-breaking vote, 7-6. The money was requested as part of an overall project that addresses storm water management and traffic patterns at the transfer station.
Also, as a result of a tie-breaking vote, $850,000 for a new fire department rescue pumper was deleted. Mason said he felt the item could wait.
The RTM is slated to vote on a final budget during its May 10 meeting.