When many Greenwich High School students would have preferred to be studying for this week's Advanced Placement exams, they spent a few hours Monday night getting a real-life lesson on how local government works.
Their efforts to convince the 230-member Representative Town Meeting to continue to fund the Music Instruction Space and Auditorium project at the tune of $12.2 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year—along with those of their teachers, headmaster, members of the Greenwich Board of Education and Board of Selectmen, parents, PTA leaders and RTM members—paid off.
A contingent of RTM members, led by District 7 members Lucia Jansen and Valerie Stauffer, failed in their efforts to kill the funding during the meeting of just more than 3 hours at Central Middle School. Before the RTM could vote on the budget, it had to vote on a motion to delete the MISA allocation from the Capital Improvement Plan budget. That motion failed by a 65-137 vote with 2 abstentions.
Once it was apparent that that MISA would survive, the RTM made fairly quick work of approving the overall $404.1 million town and school budgets for the 2012-2013 fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget is the first in town history to break the $400 million mark and represents a 3.45 percent increase over the current budget of $390.7 million. It includes $358 million for operating expenditures and fixed expenses such as employee benefits, plus $46 million for capital projects. It also assumes $36.6 million in bonding for capital projects.
That was just a little more than 3 hours after the RTM girded itself for a long spring night—approving a measure to impose a midnight curfew on discussion and votes, with a reconvening of the meeting for 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The Board of Estimate and Taxation is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. May 21 to set the mill rate which is expected to rise from 10.1 mills per $1,000 of assessed valuation to 10.3 mills. The meeting will be held in the Cone Room of Greenwich Town Hall.
When RTM Moderator Thomas Byrne opened the meeting, he announced 51 people signed up to speak against the motion to delete the allocation for the beleaguered MISA project. The project to increase classroom space for music instruction and to replace the 800+ seat auditorium with a facility that could accommodate at least half of the 2,700 student body, originally was estimated to cost about $28.8 million. However, that estimate has been increasing since last July when contaminated soil was found on the site and state and federal environmental agencies became involved.
Cost estimates now hover in the $37 million range not including all of the remediation work that will be mandated for the Hillside Road campus by governmental agencies. Jansen and Stauffer tried to rally support to delay any funding until a site cleanup plan is presented next fall.
"If more questions won’t be answered until September, why can’t we wait until the next budget cycle to get a handle on the total costs," asked Despina Fassuliotis, a longtime project critic from District 11. "It is a total project that is being given no limits." She added, "There are special interest groups filling this room."
Stauffer said, "Let me ask you, if you needed to contractor for a project for your home, would you put an addition on without estimate ... we want to proceed with MISA but we want to know the costs."
Among the dozens of supporters who voiced support of keeping the $12.2 million appropriation was GHS music teacher Patricia Harada who was accompanied by 3 of her violin students—freshman Mercedes Horner, senior Sarah Fountain and junior Mark Chien who performed abbreviated works by Bruch, Bach and Tchaikovsky.
The turning point came after more than 2 hours of discussion and was delivered by District 4 Representative James Bonney, who's also a Greenwich Police sergeant and president of the Silver Shield Association.
"There are 8,869 students in Greenwich and they each have one parent, in most cases, two parents. I don’t think that’s a special interest group—that’s our constituents we represent and one of the things they want is to build MISA," Bonney said.
He added, "I think this will pass and this is a colossal waste of time and you can vote for whatever myopic point of view you might have."
About a dozen more speakers followed Bonney before there was a motion to take a vote. A yes vote cast meant support to delete the $12.2 million, a no vote: leave the appropriation intact. The motion to cut the money was defeated by a 65-137 vote with 2 abstentions.
The entire town budget was approved by a 183-17 vote, with 1 abstention.
As RTM members and the audience filed out of the CMS auditorium before the final tally was announced, former GHS PTA co-president Camille Broderick said, "I"m very pleased. I think the issue with the soil remediation was the flavor of the month ... this was not a special interest group, it's our town who wants it."
Board of Education member Barbara O'Neill said, "In the end the people did what's best for the kids. Reason prevailed."