AP NEWS

Karen Fassuliotis Why I did not vote for the town budget

April 5, 2019

Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation member made the following comments prior to the final BET vote on the Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget March 29.

I will not be voting for the final budget that is before us this year. While I appreciate the work we have done and I respect all of my colleagues immensely, this budget is one I cannot approve. As was defined and approved in the BET’s budget guidelines back in October, I believe this board could have done better in controlling spending in town. While the Board of Education met this year’s budget guidelines, an increase that was, in my opinion, overly generous for a department that makes up the majority of our town’s budget, the town missed the mark. We could have done better by holding accountable department heads to budget goal levels. I realize I voted to restore some monies tonight but a more robust bipartisan conversation might have allowed us to reach other savings that we together might have achieved. We all know the constraints given labor contract obligations, but that is true in every municipality in Connecticut. Rather than raise taxes, it is imperative that department heads find efficiencies to do more with the same or less spending. I am also disappointed that this board, against the recommendation of its own Human Resources Committee, voted to increase management employees wage increases beyond the rate of inflation, this despite having little to no evidence of productivity gains. This is not the economic climate to be giving out, what I believe, are such generous compensation increases. Further, we are in active negotiations with several labor employee bargaining groups and this sends a terrible message to the workers that management is increasing beyond what is asked of them.

Our neighboring high performing towns seem to be able to understand that, why can’t we? New Canaan’s Town Counsel’s chairman acknowledged that high performing schools draw people to their town, but escalating taxes could chase residents away. They also acknowledge they have more work to do to decrease expenditures.

And then there is the argument that because there was no tax increase last year the 2.98 mill rate we will be approving tonight averages out over the two years to 1.49 and we should all pat ourselves on the back for doing a great job. But this tax increase is not something we should be doing in a year where Connecticut residents are bracing for new taxes and unfunded mandates that are likely coming from Hartford. We should be spending less, not more, as this budget does.

I hear from many taxpayers across town. Incredibly, many who are new to Greenwich, and some who are not, are calling for higher taxes — it seems that they mostly feel that we do not spend enough on school infrastructure or the maintenance of our buildings. We need more, we want more, we are Greenwich we can afford to pay more and we should build bigger and better things for our schoolchildren, they say. Their solution and the solution of my Democratic colleagues? Use long-term borrowing to do more projects, primarily school projects, faster. Their solution? Hire more people for our school projects as these will make them go faster. To these people I say “enough.” In the past 10 years we have spent approximately half a billion dollars on our schools. We have built three new schools, a $47 million performing arts facility and classrooms at the high school and have spent countless millions on maintenance. There has not been one project the BET has turned down for our schools. Yet the town and the BET is called to task for not spending enough and turning down projects. The school district has at least two years of projects that have already been appropriated that they still need to complete — at last count about $20 million in projects. An audit our board participated in has shown the BOE does not have processes in place to manage their projects. Yet we approve more projects. ... The schools cannot possible do what they plan to do — $750 million dollars worth — in the time frame that has been outlined. Individual BOE members have acknowledged that, even if the board has not taken an official position.

Maybe I will be proven wrong, and I hope I am (but I doubt it), but the BOE projects that were voted on today will likely be swallowed up in regulatory approvals and other roadblocks. We might even find ourselves with another remediation project at the high school. While this BET feels that there should be an exception for the schools who apparently now do not need to follow our town’s long-established process for approving capital projects, that is — monies first for feasibility and some A&E to get through the planning/MI process and then come back for the full appropriation. But if a town department asks us to follow the same process they apparently will be told, at least from the conversation we had at yesterday’s budget workshop, that their project request is “not the same thing.” I have no problem approving projects that addressed safety concerns in the schools — I would have voted for replacement of the bleachers and monies for feasibility/A&E design only — but bundling these projects to a more grand scheme will simply delay the implementation of measures to correct the safety concerns, not expedite them.

Lost in the din of those calling for more taxes are the voices of taxpayers who are pleading for us to lower our tax growth. Adding taxes to an already burdened constituency ... in a year where Hartford is proposing massive tax increases on everything that moves and every service that is provided — including tolls and cats. This is not the year our town government should be spending more. Again, other towns get it — high resident expectation towns like Wilton understands the economic pressures that their residents are feeling — their budget proposes a less than 1-percent budget increase. Why are we not demanding the same sacrifices from our town departments?

At the budget hearing I heard one individual state that having the senior tax relief include those that are suffering from a disability means we don’t have to worry about this segment of our town since they are taken care of already — meaning we can and should tax them and others more. Really? As an elder law attorney I work with many of our frail and vulnerable residents whose main worry is whether they will have enough money to remain in their homes. Many of these do not qualify for tax relief for one reason or another, are cash poor, and are facing the ever-increasing financial burden of funding their own home care. These are the people I am thinking of when I cast my “no” vote tonight.