Updated: BET Passes Budget 8-4; Some Bi-Partisanship, Some Acrimony

Update, Wednesday morning: On WGCH radio, Board of Estimate and Taxation chair Harry Fisher did a debrief of the budget decision day, noting that the projected mill rate would go up 2.8%.

“I think that’s a pretty good result given how much inflation we’ve had in the last few years and the fact that last year’s budget had a flat mill rate,” he said. “For the first time the total budget to be financed is $501,306,000. That’s a new high water mark.”

He said he was pleased about collaboration with the school district on their school budget, and that Old Greenwich School’s renovation was included in the budget for $43 million.

As for the traffic and pedestrian safety meeting series in progress with the Dept of Public Works, Fisher said the $500,000 transportation safety study – of which the town’s portion would be $100,000 – being cut from the budget, he said, “I’m going to be talking to the FS later this morning about this, and I expect that he’s going to propose that as an interim request to the BET and we’ll have a little more time to delve into the merits and risks of that program.”

Original Story: On Tuesday, the Republican controlled BET concluded an unprecedented fourth “decision day” and passed Greenwich’s 2024-2025 budget.

BET chair Harry Fisher on budget day #4. April 16, 2024 via GCTV

BET chair Harry Fisher had warned that if the board could not pass a budget it would revert to last year’s budget, and go to the Representative Town meeting for a vote.

He said it would be “disastrous” to hamstring the town with a flat budget from the previous year.

The first action the BET took on Tuesday, and the only change to where they left off last week, was to reconsider the bonding resolution.

Leslie Tarkington moved the BET increase the budget by $125,000 for the “Shore Road South” project.

“During the vote on the capital projects, Shore Road sidewalk project was incorrectly recorded. Instead of conditioning $125K of the $200K budget, it was treated as a reduction and therefore the bonding resolution was understated by $125,000. Since the total project of $200,000 was approved by the BET, only the bonding resolution needs to be amended from $75,106,000 to $76,231,000.”

The vote on amending the bonding resolution was unanimous, passing 12-0.

Next, the motion to approve the budget as amended was:

Elliot Alcheck (D): yes
Matt DesChamps (D): no
Nisha Arora (R): yes
Steve Selbst (D): yes
Fassuliotis (R): pass
Harry Fisher (R): yes
Leslie Tarkington (R): yes
Leslie Moriarty (D): no
David Weisbrod (D): no
Lucia Jansen (R): pass
Scott Kalb (D): yes
David Alfano (R): yes

After that point, Ms Fassuliotis voted no. Ms Jansen voted yes.

“The budge passes by a vote of 8 to four,” Mr. Fisher said.

From there BET members shared comments.

Leslie Moriarty said on behalf of the Democratic members of the board, “We believe the BET has a responsibility to pass a budget for the RTM’s consideration, and we were concerned about that not happening. We were pleased that it includes support for Old Greenwich School renovation, Riverside School feasibility, the schools operating budget, the necessary fire engine purchases, Glenville Road corridor CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) project and several other items.”

However, she said, “While we supported those items, there were glaring omissions that give us concern the continuation of the under funding of the capital plan is a problem. This board and the RTM have approved important projects which require an appropriate financing plan. This budget does not commit to the proper servicing of the costs for the capital projects that have already been approved.”

“Secondly, departmental consolidations were approved with no discussion of the impact on services or personnel. That is not a proper process.”

“Third, lack of planning for addressing resident concerns about traffic, pedestrian safety, ADA accommodations, storm water drainage as expressed in the community service and the public comments we’ve received. This is evidenced by the rejection of the federal grant for the Transportation Safety Action plan. ”

The reference to the federal grant came up last week at a well attended Dept of Public Works input session on pedestrian and traffic safety in Cos Cob, the second in a series of neighborhood DPW input sessions.

“This budget continues a myopic view of an operating and investment plan,” Moriarty continued. “We can and we should do better. We hope to work with our colleagues in the coming year to improve our budget process, to be more transparent, to be able to focus on the core items and avoid the last minute surprises. These surprises, of which there were many, do not allow proper review and discussion, and result in sub-optimal outcomes. Our residents deserve better than that.”

Leslie Tarkington said, “Capital projects at a combined fiscal year ’25, plus fiscal year ’24 interims appropriated, is at a record $144 million, a 29% increase over fiscal year ’24, and $4 million more than budget guidelines.”

“Operating is up 4% year over year,” she added.

“The total amount to be financed  in the fiscal year ’25 budget in the general fund is $501 million – again more than the $500 million in budget guidelines. This is a 4% increase over fiscal year ’24.”

“The town is fortunate that property tax revenue is projected to increase by 4% as real estate building permits continue to be strong here in town. With these comments, and this fiscal year ’25 budget approval, there is substantial work to remain within the fiscal year ’24 budget and that of fiscal year ’25 budget.”

Stephen Selbst, who is a member of the Old Greenwich School building committee, congratulated the board, “with at least a measure of bi-partisanship.”

“All of you have heard me, probably for two years, talk about the importance of the Old Greenwich School project to the town and to the community. It’s an important milestone,” he said. “From our perspective as Democrats…this is not a perfect budget, but it is clearly deeply preferable to the risk and chaos of no budget, and the certainty of funding for Old Greenwich School was decisive for me.”

Nisha Arora said the budget process had taken longer than in the past because of a commitment on both sides of working together.

“While I don’t believe this is perfect, it does highlight the commitment of our board wanting to work together for the betterment of our community,” Arora said.

Ms Fassuliotis explained her no vote.

“I could not vote for the type of spending that this budget envisions for the the mill rate that will result from this budget,” Fassuliotis said. “This BET just did not do the hard work to reduce spending.”

“I outlined reasons during the budget process why the BOE budget, which received everything promised them plus an additional $2.4 million over that, for over $10 million increase as to why they should have had a reduction in their budget, and I think it bears repeating: We here, the voters, protect core academic programs, athletics, arts and special ed. Our guidelines do just that. This budget gives Toni Jones It is clear that more money does not result in better outcomes for our kids, and that can not be blamed on a lack of funding.”

“We pay the highest salaries and pay the highest costs per student in the state for our peer school districts. Something it not right here,” Fassuliotis added. “The BOE does not have a funding problem, even with the extra $2.4 million it is receiving in this budget. The board has a management problem.”

“It is not a funding problem. It is a management problem,” she added. “In the course of our budge deliberations we heard that on one Friday the school district had 120 teachers not come to work….by my math ,on that one day, about half of the elementary school classes did not have regular teachers.”

She said that situation represented a pattern.

“And what is the BET’s response, including from some Republicans on this board? Reward that behavior by throwing more money at the problem: $800,000. The answer can not be what this budget does: throwing more money at a management problem.”

She said the budget rewarded no accountability on the part of the superintendent and the BOE.

“We heard also that the 11 teachers that were going to be defunded by the ARPA plans publicly said these would go away when the funds dried up. That’s not what happened today with this budget,” Fassuliotis said.

“My Democratic colleague who is also a past BOE chair will argue that teaching methods are not the same and there is no capacity problem despite the reductions of students, yet we are funding for 560 less students – the same amount as though it was at capacity.”

She added that there were plenty of  opportunities for the BOE to reduce costs  transportation, special ed costs and settlements, “if only they would roll up their sleeves and do the work.”

On the town-side, she said the amount of capital the budget envisioned was at a record high. “And we will see the impact in taxes in the next five years.”

Matt DesChamps talked about working collectively in the future to find a better way to fund capital projects.

“I’d like to encourage my colleagues to re-evalute and reconsider grant funding for this town,” DesChamps added. “We have access of billions of dollars of federal grant money to pay for important safety projects.”

He said the grants reflected a return of taxpayer dollars to the community and he hoped that in the future the BET could work together find ways to accept available grant money.

Mr. Fisher had the last word.

“This is a good outcome for the town. It’s not the best outcome,” he said. “I’ll do my best to work with my colleagues on how we can improve our process and procedure because there’s always room for improvement, and examples of the last two years give me pause.”

From here the RTM will take up the budget on Monday, May 13. They are allowed to cut spending out of the BET budget, but they cannot add to it.

See also:

Town Hall Capacity Maxed Out Again: Residents Urge BET to Fund Critical Projects, Not to Cut School Teacher Jobs

Outpouring of Cos Cob Traffic & Pedestrian Safety Concerns Despite Uncertainty over Funding for Study 

Residents Urge Town to Add Crosswalks, Sidewalks, Enforcement in Old Greenwich & Riverside