Mike Warner: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest….?

Letter to the editor submitted by Mike Warner, Past chair RTM Finance Committee

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest….?

(Spoiler alert: If you’re asking about our schools, it’s not Greenwich)

Recently, our Board of Education held a mirror up for citizens to see the condition of our town’s schools. The reflection we saw, to be kind, was not pretty. This happened when an outside consultant hired by the BOE showed us and our elected officials that our average school was constructed in 1953. So now we know that our schools fully comply with educational and building standards from the middle of the last century.

The exhaustive study concluded that, with a serious effort, the town could upgrade our schools to modern standards for about $750 million dollars over the next 15 years.

This depressing news comes on top of a list of other disintegrating town buildings that already need to be renovated or replaced, such as our Old Greenwich Civic Center and the Havemeyer Building on Greenwich Avenue.

This is important because schools today’s incorporate larger “collaborative spaces” for our kids, where hands-on learning and teamwork is developed. They also comply with vital new standards of student safety, air quality, handicap access and security–important elements for learning and safety that the BOE consultant confirms our kids need.

What then accounts for our town’s unwillingness to replace its obsolete buildings and undertake other important capital projects? I believe it’s based on two deep-rooted assumptions that sound sensible at first, but don’t stand up to even the most basic “kitchen-table” economic arithmetic.

The first assumption is, “Being thrifty New Englanders, by not replacing obsolete buildings, we save taxpayers’ dollars.”

In fact, we’re not saving anything by ignoring our worn-out buildings; we’re only transferring a debt from the town’s immaculate balance sheet directly to our outdated infrastructure and school buildings. Delaying building replacement not only means more risk, but far higher cost when we do replace decaying structures, because construction cost goes up every year by about 4%.

Also, it costs us more to maintain an out-of-date building than a modern one. Today, the BOE spends about $10 million dollars a year just to maintain our 1953 schools. Operating cost for buildings from the last century cost more too, just imagine the heating bill for a building with outside walls constructed and
insulated in 1956.

By what leap of “magical thinking” can anyone believe that the town of Greenwich, with all its enormous resources, is saving taxpayers’ dollars by not replacing its obsolete school buildings, while knowing the impact these outmoded buildings have on kids learning?

Also, just ask yourself what a sharp-eyed transplanted family might see, after touring Darien schools, for example, then driving by our Western Middle School.

Thankfully we are blessed with excellent teachers who help overcome some of these deficiencies.

Second Assumption: Greenwich just can’t afford to replace its obsolete buildings; the cost would send our real estate taxes through the roof.

In fact, the opposite would be true if only the BET’ would jettison its outdated “debt policy” requiring taxpayers to payback its bonds in less than 5 years. Its simple arithmetic, when capital borrowing must be paid back in only a 5 to7 years, it will always mean heavier tax burdens for current taxpayers.

I don’t know about you, but with my first home-loan, I was able to lock-in  lower payments by extending the loan for 30 years. Those low payments had only a small impact on my household budget and the fixed rate that was “locked-in” protected me against inflation. And in a climate where inflation was increasing, those early fixed loan payments, became less and less significant as time went by, making a long-term loan a bargain.

The Town of Greenwich, however, does the opposite. The BET insists that we pay-off our loans in an extremely short period burdening todays taxpayers with artificially high payments.

This is also bizarre as a public policy. It means that today’s taxpayers pay the full cost of a school (in 5 to 7 years), and future taxpayers who will use that same school in 10 or 20 years or more pay nothing. Is that fair?

Competing gold-coast towns on the other hand, borrow for the long-term when needed using “flexible financing”, lock-in low payments and interest rates, distribute the costs fairly to the users (covering the “useful life” of a project like a school) then move on. This lowers taxpayer’ payback burdens and ensures regular modest, predictable tax increase for citizens.

All it would take is a simple “Sense of the Meeting Resolution” approved by the RTM giving “notice” to the BET that they will not approve another BET 5-year Bonding Resolution, in favor of a more flexible borrowing term for the town’s capital projects.

Are we like an aging 53-year-old movie actor who looks in the mirror and sees looking back a youthful, swashbuckling movie idol from 30 years ago? We need to look hard in that mirror and see reality. Only then can we learn to act in a way that is more thoughtful and realistic.

Mike Warner
Past chair RTM Finance Committee