On Monday, First Selectman Peter Tesei presented his recommended budget to the BET budget committee for fiscal year 2018-2019.
The combined budget for Town services, the Board of Education, fixed charges and the capital improvement projects totals $426,667,729.
The total represents an overall 1.58 % increase in spending from the current 2017-2018 budget of $420,015,556, and reflects a mill rate increase of 0.32%, the lowest increase in 20 years.
A controversial item in the budget involved public school athletic fields – specifically, a request in the budget for $2,340,000 that includes $300,000 to look at the feasibility of engineered natural grass playing fields, (previously proposed for the study of synthetic turf.)
The remaining $2,040,000 would be used to refurbish the carpets on fields 6 and 7 at Greenwich High School, which have reached the end of their expected useful life.
About a dozen residents spoke out against the idea of lights and “engineered grass” at one of Greenwich’s middle schools.
Peter Uhry, a 42 year resident of Riverside who lives near Eastern Middle School, said he believed the funds would be better spent elsewhere. “Who really wants the lights at these schools? Not the neighbors,” he said. “Have town officials asked the neighbors before going ahead and allocating $300,000 to proceed with this project? Who has reached out to the town’s realtors to see the impact on the value of homes should the lights be installed?”
“When I heard it was going to be natural grass I was excited,” Mr. Uhry said. “But when I pulled out the project information sheet from the CIP, it says under the description for planning and design funds that it’s for an ‘Engineered Natural Grass field.'”
In fact everyone who spoke at the hearing about the money for fields, spoke against either artificial turf or ‘Engineered Grass.’
Though many in Town are eager for more fields to be turfed, they have been conspicuously absent at public hearings.
At the Parks & Rec’s January board meeting, members talked about the shortage of playing fields and the urgency to turf more fields.
They also complained that field user groups haven’t participated in the budget process.
Parks & Rec member John Hartwell said it is down to “a vocal minority” who oppose turfing. “We’ve got a bunch of wannabe doctors come up and say we’re all going to die tomorrow, but it’s really ‘Not In My Back Yard,'” Hartwell said.
Hartwell and other members of Parks & Rec talked about their disappointment with the BOE presentation to P&Z for lights at CMS to back on Dec 3, 2017, referring to it as a disaster. At that meeting, the BOE’s facilities director asked for either diesel or electric powered temporary lights at CMS for the GHS rugby team. The proposal was denied.
Parks & Rec director Joe Siciliano said at the Jan board meeting, “At the end of the day, it’s all about more intense use of the neighborhood – bringing parking, more traffic, and more games on Saturdays, Sundays and after school.”
“The only way now to use more fields is to turf them,” Hartwell said.
Siciliano said that Western Middle School would be the ideal school for turf, but since contamination was found there, and the fields have been fenced off, thoughts next turned to Central Middle School.
“Is our friend Dawn (Dawn Fortunato) opposing it?” Hartwell asked about turfing Western Middle school. “They don’t seem to get organized like the other two schools.”
“No, I haven’t heard opposition,” Siciliano said. “You have the transfer station on one side. Armstrong Court on one side. The bakery on one side.” He added that at Western it would be possible to put in a field-and-a-half.
“Central is an ideal location because the kids at the high school can walk to Central. There’s no busing charge,” Siciliano said.
Hartwell said he planned to speak out in favor of turfing fields, and suggested asking user groups to participate in public hearings.
“The user groups are not tuned into this process,” Siciliano agreed.
Indeed, on Monday night, no one spoke in favor of the $300,000 in the budget to undertake a feasibility of engineered natural grass playing fields.
Susan Foster, a resident of Bramble Lane, asked the committee to deny the $300,000 at a location “to be determined.”
“How can the public weigh in if the location isn’t even known?” she asked.
Foster argued that preferences for sports are fickle over time. She said that in the 1970s tennis was such a hot sport that Greenwich is lucky asphalt wasn’t installed over all the town’s green spaces to accommodate demands for tennis. (The Town has 34 tennis courts.)
“Instead of focusing on an athletic population not under its mandate, the BOE needs to focus on all the students and their needs for interior space,” she continued, adding that GHS doesn’t have enough gym space for all their indoor sports, and that a second gym has been needed for at least a decade.
“With three sports in the gym, it’s not a safe situation. This is beyond the core mission of the BOE. They should focus on decrepit facilities like the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center before they address field expansion,” Foster said.
As for Parks & Rec’s comment from Mr. Hartwell about wannabe doctors, some of the doctors who have testified against lighting Central and Eastern include Dr. Arthur Yee of Coachlamp Lane whose specialty is Infectious Disease Medicine. Dr. Yee first testified in November before P&Z when they asked for temporary diesel powered lights at CMS, saying diesel fuel is a significant risk to humans.
Another doctor who has repeatedly testified at public hearings is Dr. Jurij Savyckyj, who has lived at 36 Bramble Lane for 42 years. Dr. Savyckyj, whose house backs up to the EMS baseball diamond, is chief of staff at the largest psychiatric hospital in New York.
“What is engineered grass? It’s genetically modified grass. There’s a lot to this grass business. Very few people understand it,” Dr. Savyckyj said. “It gives you the chills when you understand it. It’s like a science fiction story.”
Also, at Monday’s budget hearing, Patty Roberts, brought the topic back to the unresolved field lighting question at GHS.
“Hit the pause button and develop a game plan for the whole district.” Roberts received applause when she asked the BET budget committee, “How are you going to resolve the lighting issue at GHS?”
Molly Saleeby, a lifelong Greenwich resident who attended Greenwich Schools and is a newly elected RTM member agreed.
“I want to take a step back with a broader view from turf and lighting of fields,” she said, adding that maintenance and capital improvements to public schools in general have been neglected.
“The doors of the girls locker room of Eastern Middle school look like a war zone,” she said, adding that the condition of Greenwich’s school facilities pales in comparison to those in Darien and New Canaan, and that impacts property values.
“Our conditions doesn’t match the quality education we provide in town and students deserve no less.”
The BET budget committee will vote on the proposed budget on Feb 23, with out without changes they may make.
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