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Greenwich gears up for budget battle

January 19, 2019

GREENWICH — The official presentation of the 2019-20 municipal budget is still days away, but a fight may already be brewing over Greenwich’s proposed capital spending over the start of such possible projects as replacing the ice rink and the Eastern Civic Center.

At a public hearing last month, several members of the Representative Town Meeting spoke out against town spending and urged “restraint” in the budget. And this could lead to much debate after First Selectman Peter Tesei introduces a proposed budget Thursday night that includes $53 million to $54 million in spending on capital projects.

That figure includes $26 million in capital spending from the Board of Education, but it also has many capital projects that Tesei considers to be priorities. He is looking for money to further develop projects, including building a new municipal ice rink, replacing the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center, enhancing Roger Sherman Baldwin Park and seeking property for a new Northwest fire station.

“I’d like to think there is support for this,” Tesei said late last week. “The only way you’re going to know is if you put it forward. I am confident and grounded in what I believe members in our community are looking to see. That’s my responsibility.”

But there could be a lot of opposition to the “strategic investments” Tesei is likely to include in the budget. The budget needs approval from both the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the RTM. And last month, RTM members came out swinging against high capital spending.

On Friday, RTM Budget Overview Committee Chair Lucia Jansen noted the discussion in December was over an initial budget draft with $80 million in proposed capital spending.

“Committee members have not seen the first selectman’s proposed budget that would have more complete information,” Jansen said. “It appears that many of the capital projects in fiscal year 2020 will be initial startup projects,” she said, and the BOC will review the complete operating and capital costs of these projects.

Jansen said the BOC wants a full review of the town’s operating budget, too, specifically looking at what steps have been taken to increase productivity and delivery of services in Town Hall while reducing costs.

The details of the budget proposal are still being finalized. Tesei will make his formal presentation to the Board of Estimate and Taxation at 6 p.m. Thursday, followed by a presentation of the school budget and a public hearing.

The BET’s Budget Committee will then begin weeks of hearings, starting on Feb. 4, on the proposed budget. Committee Chair Leslie Moriarty said all capital and operational budgets will be discussed as each department went in for a hearing.

“The town needs to invest in its infrastructure and schools so that we have well-maintained buildings and services that meet our residents’ needs,” Moriarty said. “The Budget Committee will be evaluating both the budget year and forecast years for the scope and timing of all projects.” It will examine the town’s ability to implement and finance each plan.

Moriarty added the committee will want an update on approved but not completed projects and will discuss the items in Tesei’s budget along with the Board of Education master plan.

“These plans combine to significantly increase the total amount of capital spending, which will need to be balanced against our funding strategy,” Moriarty said. “I expect a good exchange of information during the upcoming budget meetings.”

The budget for the current fiscal year totals $40.7 million in capital spending for the town and the schools. Initially, the proposed capital spending for 2019-20 was higher, but the Board of Education deferred funding for a new field at Central Middle School and remediation at Western Middle School.

Tesei said he understands the concerns. The town’s operating budget will basically reflect only contractually mandated salary increases and continued full town funding of fixed costs such as post-employment benefits, said Tesei, who said he is committed to managing costs.

“You have to make a judgment,” he said. “The budget is a series of judgments. When you see us being affirmed by rating agencies as Triple A, and you see them talk about strong management and fiscal operations, you know we’re not being irresponsible in what we’re doing. We’re being visionary in knowing the amenities we’re talking about are things that people look to when they consider communities.”

And if there is opposition to his budget plan, Tesei said there will be a mechanism for it.

“These are amenities and services we have had before,” Tesei said. “My question for (opponents to the spending) is, ‘Are you saying you do not want these things?’ If you don’t want them then vote accordingly. I’ve always said that if people don’t want something then vote accordingly.”

He urged town officials to focus on the town’s needs.

“It seems we’ve gotten to a point where people do not remember how to have a discourse and a differing opinion without negativity,” said Tesei, defending his budget plans.

“I think these are amenities these people have really come to enjoy. They’re an integral part the communities and neighborhoods and I think we’ve been very fortunate over time to have them continue,” he said.

The facilities at the civic center and the rink are no longer adequate, Tesei said. The funds in the 2019-20 budget would not be for actual construction but for preparations. And replacing these amenities, as well as other projects like improvements to Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, would be a long-term investment that would bring in new residents and make Greenwich a more marketable town, Tesei said.

Greenwich stands out among other communities, he said, pointing to credit rating agencies that state the town is “in extremely strong condition.”

“People have to know that their community has a solid track record when it comes to maintaining public infrastructure and quality service as well as managing their finances,” Tesei said. “I think we’ve done all of that. You’ll have people who argue, ‘No, you haven’t,’ and you can always find areas to improve. But overall the independent satisfaction surveys (of residents) give us the feedback that affirms the actions that we’re taking.”

Within the next month or so, Tesei intends to formalize a portfolio of town capital projects to attract new residents and enhance the quality of life. His ultimate goal is to look for corporate sponsorships.

“I’m talking about sponsorship and naming for the civic center or the rink,” Tesei said. “The new ferry boats could also fall into that. This is a real opportunity and I want to address that in the coming months by finding people who will help me.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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