LETTER: Greenwich deserves transparency on the difficult choices ahead

Letter to the editor submitted by Brooks Harris

In her recent op-ed in the Greenwich Free Press, Jill Oberlander makes her pitch to be First Selectman. At first glance the piece appears to be fairly anodyne with something for everyone. Greenwich is great! The teachers are great! The kids are great! And our recreational spaces? They’re great too! With everything so great, it almost makes you wonder why we need “a new kind of leadership” who will “revisit the status quo”. Apparently, something is not so great, and Oberlander aims to fix it.

Oberlander lists as her top agenda item, “prioritize investments in our education system and our children’s well-being.” On the surface, this sounds reasonable. I strongly support education andchildren’s well-being. Who doesn’t!? But what does it mean to “prioritize” these investments? If you are even tangentially aware of Town issues, you realize she is referring to the Board of Education (BOE) proposed $1+ billion “master plan.” The plan, as currently constituted, calls for dramatic increases in capital expenditures and taxes and is only feasible if the town funds it with long-term borrowing, and lots of it. The prioritization Oberlander refers to is favoring the capital spending (“investment”) and minimizing concerns over increased taxes or debt.

It is not unreasonable to advocate for capital projects that justify the taxes and debt required to pay for them. Indeed, each year the Town appropriates around $50 million for capital expenditures. As a member of the RTM I have voted for this spending, and I trust residents will get their money’s worth.

But if you advocate a major increase in capital spending, it is not fair to tout the benefits without making clear the cost in debt and taxes. Only then can people judge the merits of the projects relative to the costs.

The Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) projects that if we “prioritize” the BOE’s master plan as proposed, capital spending will rise dramatically, our mill rate will increase by 60% and our debt will triple over the life of the program. Oberlander knows this. She is Chair of the BET. These are pretty dramatic changes, but unless you were very involved in the process you would have no way of knowing this. People who advocate “investment” downplay how significant this increase is. That is why it is critical we ask our representatives to give us the unvarnished truth in advance of approving such projects rather than having us find out in the future after it is too late, and the money has been spent.

I have advocated for this transparency at numerous BET committee meetings. But if you “prioritize investments in our education system” it is inconvenient to have to justify the cost. Some have argued that no one can know the future, so the projections are essentially meaningless. But you do not need a degree in finance from Wharton to understand that if you spend $1 billion, you either need to borrow that money or raise it in taxes. It is not rocket science. And the residents of Greenwich are more than capable of understanding that.

My guess is that when residents see the proposals and the costs, they will support projects that are needed and provide a great benefit for our kids, and postpone or forego those that do not meet this standard. We will spend what we need, and taxes and debt will rise more slowly.

The upcoming elections in November are important because this major increase in capital spending will start picking up steam in the next few years. The project will develop momentum, which will be difficult to alter even if we realize we are over-extending ourselves. True leadership means embracing transparency, defending the increases in taxes and debt implicit in your priorities and accepting that our residents deserve to make their elective choices based on informed debate. Now is the time to demand transparency. After the election, officials will repair to the back rooms and do as they wish. Only at election time can we ask how will they handle the difficult trade-offs we face. Unless they are willing to do that, they have not earned our vote.

Brooks Harris is a member of the RTM and can be contacted at BrooksHarrisGreenwichRTM@gmail.com The views in this article do not represent those of the RTM or any of its committees.

See also:

Oberlander: My Vision for Greenwich