Submitted by Dan Ozizmir, Nisha Arora, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher, and Leslie Tarkington – Republican members of Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation.
Last week the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) approved a budget for the fiscal year commencing July 1, 2023 (FY24). The budget shows a particular commitment to improving and maintaining Greenwich’s town and school infrastructure. The approved capital expenditures are a record $112 million, which is 72 % greater than the current year’s expenditures.
When comparing the FY24 capital and infrastructure spending program the BET approved more than double the average of projects approved in the prior seven years. The greatest capital resources were allocated for an additional $4 million for soil remediation at Greenwich High School, $67.5 million, the remainder of a $70 million commitment, for an all-new Central Middle School, an additional $10 million for soil remediation at Western Middle School, $5.2 million for paving and road maintenance, $3 million to replace the North Street bridge, and $1.7 million for a new ladder truck for the Fire Department, among many other items. In an immediate response to the many comments received by the BET from residents asking to improve the Old Greenwich School, the budget also allocates $2.6 million to improve the School’s sewer system, and adds additional funds to address immediate ADA needs identified by the Board of Education (BOE) for future capital needs, including a badly needed elevator and ramps. The budget also allocated money to continue the architecture and engineering design for an extensive renovation of Old Greenwich School. These monies allow the Old Greenwich Building Committee to continue their work toward a final design.
Operating expenses total $427 million, an increase of 3.4%. Our school system accounts for most of this spending. Of the $427 million, the schools, including employee benefits, account for $225.1 million. The Schools’ extraordinary capital program must be added to this to reflect the full financial commitment to our School system.
When looking at next year’s extraordinary amount of spending on infrastructure, the Town’s net debt is expected to grow by $59.8 million. Total debt today is $213.7. This is consistent with Greenwich’s bond rating which is AAA, indicating the highest credit quality and financial strength. Essentially all Greenwich’s debt, except the sewer plant and Nathaniel Witherell, has a conservative maturity of 8 years or less. Excessive debt is a danger to many municipalities, but not to Greenwich. Our debt will continue to be well-managed.
Here’s some excellent news: even with this extraordinary level of capital spending, the projected increase in the property tax rate is 1.00% mills. This is well below the current rate of inflation. Greenwich’s financial management continues to be strong, and our Town’s financial position is rock-solid. This is because our town continues to see an increase in our Grand List, which allows the Town to address amenities as well as needed infrastructure needs.
Our system of financial management is designed to be bipartisan. The Board of Estimate and Taxation has six Republican members and six Democratic members. The party representation is equal. In the cases where an agenda item is voted 6 to 6, the rules provide for a tie breaking vote by the chairman of whichever party got the most cumulative votes for the BET in the preceding election. Our operating budget has about 84 different line items. The capital budget has about 109 separate items. This year, some 34 of these 193 items required the tie-breaking vote, which is a typical level.
Finalizing the budget had its challenges. The BET finalized the budget on April 4 in a marathon 14-hour meeting. This included financing operations with approximately the same amount of General Fund balance of $23.5 million as in FY23, and financing Capital expenditures using Capital Non-Recurring Fund balance of $4 million. The BET does not let excess Fund Balances lie idle and uses them when needed.
Unfortunately, at the meeting’s conclusion, the six Democrats tried two dangerous maneuvers that were meant to delay and discredit the final budget vote. One member abstained. After Board members realized that his abstention meant that the budget did not pass, despite a 6-5-1 vote, the abstainer then tried to obtain an additional tax increase in return for his vote, which was not supported by the Republicans. His abstention meant that it was not possible to reach 7 votes (including a tie-breaking vote) to approve the FY24 budget. Ultimately, he called off his own bluff and rescinded his vote after a Republican allowed him to do so by offering a motion to rescind the previous vote (only those on the winning side of the vote can offer a motion to rescind to allow the vote to be recast). Had Republicans not allowed the vote to be rescinded Democrats would have left the Town with no updated budget, leaving the budget at last year’s funding level plus monies for contractual obligations and the payment of any debt service.
Additionally, had Republicans not rescinded the vote the Democrat’s purely political maneuver would also have left FY24 with no capital expenditures, resulting in the elimination of any school capital or Town infrastructure spending.
Fortunately, Republicans did the responsible thing and allowed reconsideration of the vote on the final budget, allowing a revote. Disappointingly, for the second year in a row, not one Democrat voted for the budget, requiring the Chair to break a 6-6 tie.
While the tactics of Democrats on the BET were disappointing, no budget delivers everything that everyone wants. Choices made to eliminate or reduce capital expenditures were difficult decisions and some departments and town residents may be disappointed with some of the items that did not make it into the upcoming budget.
But, in the end, the FY24 budget serves Greenwich’s needs with stability, prudence and proficiency. BET members may not all agree on the outcome, but our Town continues to have a Finance Department that is second to none and a Board that is overseeing well managed finances to assure that Greenwich continues to be a town that is in excellent financial health. This allows our Town to continue to be the best place to raise a family, live, work, and ultimately retire!
Dan Ozizmir, Nisha Arora, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher, and Leslie Tarkington are Republican members of Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation.