RAMER: Whose Budget is this ?

Submitted by Jeff Ramer, Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation

After fourteen years on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, I surely understand that Budgeting is an exercise of discretion, weighing the amenity of Town programs and services against the desire for low taxes. Having spent most of that time in the Democratic minority, I am familiar with the control of the Republican majority and their tie-breaking vote. Never before, however, has there been such blind obsession with mill rate, and indeed, in this instance to create even the deceptive appearance of low mill rate.

The obsession this year was to create a mill rate that appeared to rise by less than inflation; a Budget that is mostly salaries rising by less than the increases in those contractual salaries under the labor agreements.

To contrive that result took a little slight of hand and a nasty drum beat of party-line votes:

  1. First and foremost, when the desired mill rate was unobtainable, the Republican majority simply passed an unbalanced budget, dipping into the Town’s Fund Balance, its “rainy day fund”, for a whopping $21.3 million to pay current operating expenses and accumulated deficits, rather than to allow taxes to cover current costs. Party-line vote. Yes, sure, in most years we allow excess revenues in the prior year to subsidize costs in the succeeding year, but this invasion of Fund Balance went far beyond historical norms.
  2. The Board of Education brought its request for funding of renovation plans at Julian Curtiss Elementary School, and was told on a party-line vote that anything that added space or upgraded program was unacceptable. The $1.7 million of funding was denied. Instead, a modest $200,000 was appropriated with instructions to produce a plan compliant with Republican BET wishes. Gone were such “nice to haves” as a science room, right sizing of the cafeteria, updating the media center, space for pre-K, and upgrading the playground. This is educational program written by a finance board, rather than by a Board of Education. Party-line vote. In the queue behind Julian Curtiss are renovations at Old Greenwich School and Riverside School, each now cringing at what to expect.
  3. $102,000 was requested for an engineering study to investigate the condition of the crumbling Central Middle School. Appropriated was zero. Party-line vote. We apparently don’t want to know.
  4. Bicycle enthusiasts across Town organized to request a small sum of money for a simplistic look at the feasibility of a safe bike route across Town, offering to supplement Town funds with their private donations. Not a penny appropriated. Party-line vote.
  5. Midway through a three year analysis of the Town’s vulnerabilities to sea level rise, flooding, and climate change, the plug was pulled. No more funding. Party-line vote.
  6. The Town hired a consultant, Matrix Consulting Group, to analyze the Town’s fire response, particularly to the northern quadrants of Town. The Consultant confirmed deficiencies and recommended that a career firefighter unit be developed at the volunteer firehouse at Round Hill. A modest $75,000 was requested to look at feasibility and prepare some conceptual designs. Rejected. No funding. Party-line vote.
  7. We normally spend between $4.25 million and $5 million annually on paving our roads, honoring the detailed analysis of Public Works as to what would be required to just maintain current standards. The recommended $4.25 million was cut to $4 million, and then to $3.5 million. Party-line vote. Hopefully, the bicyclists, lacking a safe bike route, will not injure themselves on our proliferating potholes.
  8. Funding for the long awaited Eastern Greenwich Civic Center project was slapped with conditions for construction to be paid for by “substantial private donations” and for a demonstration of “rents and fees” to be
    collected, if the work is allowed to proceed. Party-line vote.
  9. Rejected too was a modest stipend of $30,000 to our Human Services Department as an emergency fund for rent assistance and social services to the needy in our Community affected by COVID. Party-line vote.
  10. We replace fire engines in a methodical rotation, passing down the replaced engines to the volunteer companies. For the second year, the normal rotation was suspended. Party-line vote.
  11. The replacement of the failing sixteen year old front end loader of the Department of Public Works was rejected again this year, opting instead for a $30,000 repair bill. Party-line vote.
  12. For a decade, the Department of Public Works has been urging a redesign of the chaotic traffic patterns at the Dump, to relieve the building delays and the risks of someone being injured. Once again, not a penny. Party-
    line vote.
  13. The Town budgets a “Risk Fund” from which to defend and resolve lawsuits against the Town, normally funding $3 million annually. This year, artificially suppressing the mill rate, not a penny was set aside. Party-line vote.
  14. We normally pay for a portion of our Capital projects in cash, rather than by issuing bonds. But the cash component adds to the mill rate. The normal increase to this cash component was squelched this year, again to
    suppress the mill rate. The failure to fund the cash component this year compromises the ability of the Town to adhere to its Capital planning in subsequent years. Party-line vote.
  15. Two days after the final Budget vote, the School Board presented its request for interim emergency funding to repair North Mianus Elementary School, where an aging plaster ceiling collapsed, breaking sprinkler lines and doing considerable damage. By good fortune, the collapse was on a Saturday morning, so no students or faculty were present in the School. Engineers hired to investigate cautioned that ceilings throughout the remainder of this old School are in imminent danger of the same collapse. On a party-line vote, only partial funding was approved to replace the collapsed ceiling, and no funding yet to repair the remaining ceilings. It did not matter that the withholding of funding for the balance of the work had no apparent logic, or that it may well dislocate the students from their School for unnecessary months. Party-line vote.

In balancing taxes against services, one hopes to find an equilibrium that funds a Community with reasonable taxes and a level of amenity that makes it a place where we all want to live. Low taxes are great. Stinginess is not. One time gimmicks that compromise fund balances, risk funds, and sound capital financing certainly are not. To me, these party-line votes were mean and unsound budgeting.

Whether they were right for you is something for you to consider on Election Day. Elections have consequences.

Jeff Ramer