Opinion: BET Republican Capital Spending Cuts Are Shortsighted; Will Cost Town More in Long Run

Submitted by Stephen Selbst, Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation

The Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) recently approved the FY 2023 budget on a strict party-line vote (7-6).

There was no Democratic support chiefly because the budget arbitrarily denied essential funding for long deferred critical capital projects and rejected changes that would help address the Town’s capital needs.

The approved capital budget was $65 million, $5 million below the BET’s own guidelines, and $22 million below the First Selectman’s requests. To achieve this, the Republicans on the BET pushed through damaging reductions on party-line votes to two major school renovation projects and numerous similar cuts to other projects. The BET also failed to adequately fund the capital tax levy, which is a portion of the Town’s taxes dedicated to capital projects. This is not fiscal stewardship; it is shortsighted and will end up costing the Town more money in the long run.

Let’s look at some specifics:

School Projects

There is Town-wide consensus that the schools have been systematically underfunded. The story has been told and retold: This year, the foundation of Central Middle School was declared structurally unsafe, requiring an evacuation of its students and a set of unplanned repairs. It shouldn’t take the risk of another building collapse to move the BET to provide adequate maintenance for the schools.

But that is not what is happening. Despite the BOE capital plan calling for a $30 million renovation of Julian Curtiss school, the Republicans on the BET voted otherwise. The comprehensive plan for Julian Curtiss addressed inadequate educational spaces as well the air quality, security, and adding air conditioning and an elevator, bringing the school into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In its FY23 budget, the Board of Education (BOE) asked for $1.5 million for preliminary studies for that plan, which had been deferred or cut in the last two budgets. Instead, Republicans on the BET pushed through amendments to the budget that, while purporting to fund the HVAC system and ADA compliance, in practice gutted the plan proposed by the BOE.

The BOE’s renovation plan for Old Greenwich school was similarly altered by the Republicans on the BET. The BOE plan called for $1.5 million for preliminary studies for this long-deferred remediation project. The Republicans cut the amount to $1 million, stating that they believe the scope and expense of the project will be lower than projected, without disclosing their plan to reduce its scope. Greenwich has a publicly elected BOE with equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members that is charged with determining the needs of our schools. By scaling back school improvement projects approved by the BOE, BET Republicans are usurping the  BOE’s authority BOE in the guise of formulating budget policy.

Fire Department

A November 2020 study by Matrix Consulting Group recommended construction of an additional firehouse in the northwest quadrant of Town to provide better fire protection throughout the community. To staff such a firehouse, the Town would need to hire twelve professional firefighters. The First Selectman’s proposed budget added four firemen per year, such phasing being necessary given scarcity of spaces at the state’s fire training academy.

The BET Republicans voted on a party line vote to eliminate the additional fire department employees.

And while they denied that their decision was a vote to kill the northwest firehouse, that denial is hollow: This is a clear rejection of the recommendations of the Matrix study, which is supported by our First Selectman and Fire Chief.

The BET Republicans also deleted $1.4 million requested by the Fire Department for the purchase of a new ladder truck to replace an existing obsolete truck which is more than 20 years old.

Other Capital Projects

To arbitrarily cutting capital spending, the BET Republicans eliminated or cut many other capital projects, few of which can be characterized as unnecessary or merely “nice to have.”

The budget arbitrarily reduced highway maintenance spending from $2 million to $1.75 million and reduced spending on ADA compliance for the Town’s sidewalks by $200,000. Amendments to the capital budget also eliminated $60,000 for backup servers for the Police Department, $30,000 for renovation of a 30-year-old employee bathroom and $58,000 for a lightning protection system for the Bruce Museum. Greenwich Library’s request for $300,000 to upgrade its elevator was cut. The Town had agreed to maintain both facilities; refusing to fund necessary improvements is not fulfilling our promises. At Greenwich High School, $413,000 to refurbish the track at Greenwich Stadium was cut to $50,000, as was $300,000 in maintenance funding for the parking lot.

The list goes on and on, but the point is clear: The BET Republicans took out their knives and cut capital spending indiscriminately, justifying the cuts by pointing to the overall level of capital spending in the coming fiscal year.

What’s the Way Out?

It doesn’t have to be this way. For many years, Greenwich has used a modified pay-as-you-go system, relying exclusively on municipal debt with five-year maturities. BET Democrats have developed a funding model would which shows that with modest modifications to that policy, the Town can finance all its essential capital projects without material impact on the mill rate and without jeopardizing our AAA bond rating.

None of this precludes the need to make cuts, the BET must always be the steward of careful spending – but cuts must be determined thoughtfully and transparently, with dialogue and engagement on the part of broad segments of our community.

Our schools and our other infrastructure play a big role to make Greenwich such a wonderful community; a well-maintained community also supports property tax values for all. Greenwich faces the challenge of an unprecedented need for capital spending caused in part, by years of needless delays and deferrals. We have the tools to accomplish our goals and maintain fiscal discipline; if we fail to meet the challenge, we put our entire community – and our property values – at risk.