There were hours of debate over whether Greenwich should hire more career firefighters, or whether to transition a part-time Conservation Commission staff member to full-time Thursday night before the Board of Estimate and Taxation voted to approve a $437 million budget for 2014-15.
The general budget totals $383.4 million plus $53 million in capital improvement projects. The fiscal plan translates into a 2.75 percent increase of the town's mill rate of 10.75 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, said BET Budget Committee Chair Marc Johnson.
First Selectman Peter Tesei had proposed 2014-15 budget of $397,492,171 — a 4.54 percent increase over the 2013-14 budget of $380,233,369.
The capital projects budget includes a reduction in money requested for soil remediation for the Greenwich High School MISA project from $9 million to $3.7 million because the town has not received state and federal environmental permits for the work.
By far, much of the evening was spent on discussion of staffing in town departments ranging from the Greenwich Fire Department to the Conservation Commission and whether to outsource the cleaning of Park and Recreation restroom facilities. The board also maintained a hard line with Greenwich Emergency Medical Service (GEMS), the private nonprofit that contracts with the town to provide services to residents. The board voted to place a condition on the $4.5 million allocation for GEMS, requiring reports on staffing levels and the responsibilities of administrators.
A Democratic effort to restore nearly $300,000 to the fire department budget to pay for an additional eight firefighters failed after more than an hour of debate. Tesei, who also serves as the town's fire commissioner, and Greenwich Fire administrators sought to increase the number of career firefighters working as engine crews assigned to the Sound Beach and Byram stations.
The administration wanted three career firefighters assigned to those stations rather than the current practice of assigning two-person crews.
"The eight firefighters we’re talking about, does not create four-man force, but a three-man force. … It is somewhat deficient but they can begin fire suppression process," Democratic Budget Committee member Jeffrey Ramer said. He added that OSHA requirements stand at four-man crews—"two-men in, two-men out...you enter a fire with a buddy."
After presenting statistics that Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport fire departments have four-man crews and that Fairfield and Westport have three-man crews plus administrative manpower, Ramer added, "We are one of the wealthiest communities in the world and of all the craziest things we spend money on, we cannot provide a fair standard of fire support for the safety of firemen and secondly, for the care and the protection of our residents and their possessions?"
Fellow Democrat John Blankley said, "I support this completely — the chief executive and fire commissioner (Tesei) has recommended this for safety of this town."
After Republican BET members Leslie Tarkington, Nancy Weissler, Arthur Norton and BET Chair Michael Mason all said they wouldn't support increasing staffing because of a lack of coordinated training of between volunteers and career firefighters, and use of volunteer firefighters, Blankley asked Tesei to address the 12-member panel.
Tesei said, "There’s not a more important role that this government provides than life safety service. We as a community need to assure our residents
... and the men and women who serve in
career and volunteer, there is adequate coverage to perform their function." Tesei added, "I believe
there have been adequate conversations to provide us information to move
forward. We can duck the question another year and hide behind the false
necessity for another study. Tonight is judgment time."
Of the staffing between volunteer and career firefiighters, Tesei continued, "There’s not as big a gap as you think," adding that the training required of volunteers to earn certification to enter burning buildings creates a "variable rather than an absolute to protect property and lives. I encourage you to cast a vote for absolute life safety (to show) that Greenwich values protecting its inhabitants — we do it for police, we do it for GEMS."Before taking the vote to restore the staffing allocation, Ramer made one last appeal. "Let us pass it and give to the RTM to get a sense of what your public wants," said Ramer. The motion then failed by a 3-9 vote with all six Republicans casting 'nay' votes.
The board also approved a condition that the fire department provide quarterly reports on training provided for career and volunteer personnel.
The BET also spent considerable time debating the necessity to increase the hours for a part-time conservation commission employee to full-time status. Republicans balked, citing the associated costs of benefits. Democrats and Tesei argued that the increase of development and building permits issued by the town, has created the workload of the department which also acts a liaison with state and federal emergency management agencies during natural disasters.
Democratic budget committee member Mary Lee Kiernan said, "It is inconsistent that we have added full-time and part-time positions in all other requests. We have added a full-time position in building, and a part-time for planning and zoning, and conservation must review all plans that come from those departments. I am concerned about the bottle neck we are creating in land use."
A 6-6 split along party lines was broken when Mason cast a vote not to create the full-time position. A subsequent Kiernan motion to add money to create a second part-time position also failed along party lines.
The BET also approved the Board of Education's budget of $143,939,653.
The budget process now transitions to the Representative Town Meeting which is set to begin its review before its budget vote in May.