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To Spend or Not to Spend?

Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation Budget Committee weighs public comments as budget deliberation season begins.

At the first of a series of budget hearings last night everyone agreed on one thing - money must be spent on the town’s overall operation, the , infrastructure and capital projects. But there were points of disagreement – how much and on what projects?

The Budget Committee of the Board of Estimate and Taxation hosted the hearing which last 3½  hours and featured 34 speakers who were among a standing-room only crowd close to 125 parents, teachers, town department heads and elected officials, in the . The committee will continue its fact-finding with a daylong review Thursday of the proposed $135,457,213 Board of Education budget, the first of a series that will culminate with a final budget vote by the full Board of Estimate and Taxation on March 24.

The board is considering approval of a proposed overall town budget of $103,885,225 or 1.39 percent more than this year’s $102,463,796 budget. The Board of Education’s $135.4 million budget represents an increase of 3.25 percent over this year’s $131.2 million budget. Adding in the Capital Improvement Program Projects of $86 million and capital expenditures, Peter Tesei submitted a total spending plan of $357,389,548 – which represents an increase of 4.86 percent over the current budgets.

In his presentation, Tesei said the fiscal plan is “more about services and how people value them. … the challenges are not new or unique.” In order to achieve those challenges, which he described as a “greater demand for existing services,” the town is continuing to contain costs by reducing manpower through early retirement incentives and delaying filling vacancies, and eliminating pensions for new hires (except for the firefighters and police which will be subject to negotiation) who will receive 401K retirement plans. The town will negotiate with the police and fire unions for similar retirement concessions.

In presenting the explanation for submitting a $135.4 million education spending plan, Board of Education Chairman Steve Anderson and Greenwich Public Schools Superintendent Sidney Freund said their proposed budget represented a “plan to grow each student as much as possible.” They also said the budget is dictated by contractual obligations because 85 percent of the budget is teacher salaries.

The proposed Capital Improvement Program Projects includes two hot-button plans that have been on the drawing boards for several years, both of which prompted the most vocal public comment Monday night – the $28.8 million construction of the Musical Instruction Space and Auditorium project at , and the $24 million to build a new on Bruce Place.

The high school project, commonly referred to as the MISA project  would include bulding new classrooms for band and choral classes, rehearsal space, a hydraulic lift for the stage, a new 1,350-seat auditorium, as well as storage space for musical instruments, theater costumes, props and sets for the popular performing arts program.

Several members of the Representative Town Meeting District 7 called for the town to impose a cap on spending increases and impose across-the-board spending cuts.

District 7 representative Roger Lourie said, “We are living beyond our financial means. The State of Connecticut has $3 billion deficit and you know Fairfield County is the state’s largest piggy bank. It is up to you to decide the things we need to do, not the things we want to do.”

Another District 7 representative, Lucia Jansen, said the budget plan “is not justified and should be rescinded …” and she encouraged officials to “do more with less – show courage.”

Selectman Drew Marzullo said calls for “across-the-board cuts is irresponsible … the days of ‘pay as you go’ is gone. This is the future of Greenwich. The hallmark of Greenwich is how it treats its children and its elders.”

High School Choir Director Patrick Taylor chided critics of the MISA project. “This is not a nice-to-have project. Of all the schools is this region, we have the most inadequate facilities,” said Taylor as he described cramped spaces and having to hold choir classes in the seats of the school auditorium. “This is a should-have-had 40 years ago and let’s not get to 50 or 60 years,” Taylor said to applause.

Two speakers including District 7 RTM member Linda Bruno and Board of Education member Marianna Ponns Cohen suggested the town and Board of Education could save money by combining departments including information technology and human resources. Bruno also suggested combining the tax assessor and tax collector offices and place them under the auspices of the town’s finance department.

Several speakers including Byram resident Dana Whamond voiced their support to proceed with engineering study to replace the town’s only public swimming pool at . The pool, originally a pool built for the 36-acre private estate the town purchased as a park back in the mid-1970s, is leaking chlorinated water into the soil and Byram Harbor.

She and several residents expressed support to fund the study to build a new pool facility in a private-public partnership with the Junior League of Greenwich that has agreed to take on the plan as its newest community project.

 “You can have 40 people in the pool at a time. It is hot outside, people are standing in line – without shade - until they blow the whistle. The people in the pool have to get out, and the next people in line can go in the pool. There are no facilities, you have to leave the line you’re standing in to go to the bathroom facilities five minutes away at the park entrance,” Whamond said.  “And, you’re walking in goose poop,” Whamond explained.

Other projects which earned public support was a $600,000 plan to replace the roof of the aging and leaking roof the on Harding Road in Old Greenwich.

* Story has been corrected because of reporting error regarding town employee pension and 401K plans.

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