Heated Finance Board Debate: Zingers, Accusations and Raised Voices

The gloves came off at Wednesday night’s Greenwich League of Women Voters’ debate among the candidates for Board of Estimate and Taxation, who control the town’s mill rate and property taxes, all capital spending and borrowing policy.

It started with a LWV video explaining how the 12-member board works:  Each party nominates six people to serve. They will all serve, but the party with the most votes picks the chair and he or she has a tie breaking vote.

After exceedingly cordial forums last week for Board of Selectmen and Board of Education candidates, Wednesday night was different.

There was actual debate.

There were zingers. There were accusations. There were raised voices.

Moderated by Kay Maxwell, with questions posed by high school student Jack Howes, candidates accused each other of fear mongering multiple times. They laughed, shouted, and at one point resorted to using a prop.

BET Moderator Kay Maxwell is a Stamford resident who is both past president of both the League of Women Voters of Connecticut and League of Women Voters of the United States.

That was the moment incumbent Republican Karen Fassuliotis held up an oversized credit card to suggest that if in charge, Democrats would go on a spending spree.

“Led by Republicans, the BET has created one of the most desirable communities in the country, if not the world. The cornerstone is funding all our town services and infrastructure without overburdening our taxpayers,” Fassuliotis said while holding up her prop.

Candidates for BET, David Alfano, Karen Fassuliotis, and Lucia Jansen on Oct 18, 2023

“Many wealthy residents, like my Democratic colleagues, don’t worry about big jumps in taxes, but there are a lot of young families and elderly residents, often unheard, who can’t tolerate annual increases of 5% or more.”

“Our opponents want an unlimited credit card, and propose expanding town services and expenditures in a huge spending spree. Their policy in taking on millions upon millions of long term debt, with high interest rates, will result in future higher taxes and bring us in line with our Westchester neighbors.”

“We don’t have crumbling buildings in our town,” Fassuliotis said. “That’s all fear mongering.”

And there was the moment she referred to the Democratic candidates as her opponents rather then the typical colleagues.

Audience members were asked repeatedly to simmer down.

Democratic candidate Scott Kalb was unable to attend due to a work commitment but the other five in his party evenly shared the stage in the cumulative timed format which gave each party – not each candidate – a maximum amount of time for responses.

On the other side, Republican candidate David Alfano did not utter a single word the entire night.

First time BET candidate Lucia Jansen spoke just once.

Jansen, who has run the RTM Budget Overview Committee for eight years, and 15 years working the high technology sector, had stern criticism of the Board of Education administration.

She said after a 2018 audit, they had done little in response to advice, pointing to “a people problem” and a “process and technology issue.”

“The COO admitted that the data is in such disarray that they could not implement the asset management software that was recommended. There is no project management software.”

“We are dealing a billion dollars of projects without 21st century modern tools that have been around since the 1980s,” she said.

“What I have seen over the 30-plus years I’ve lived here is that residents continue to come to Greenwich because of our excellent, quality services and also the low taxes today and the promise of low taxes tomorrow.”

Democrat Elliot Alchek said he held degrees in finance, was a credit analyst at JP Morgan Chase and later spent 15 years in charge of municipal bonds and infrastructure bonds at Goldman Sachs.

“Two years ago to the day, Oct 18, 2021 we could have issued five-year debt at .74%. Today, we’re at 3.64%. The difference in interest alone is $7.6 million,” Alchek said. “I’m paying for that. You’re paying for that. You haven’t seen it yet in a mill rate increase, but that’s just waste.”

“That’s in addition to the cost we’re going to pay because of construction inflation, in the last four years alone has been 50%.”

“Delaying and denying has cost all of us money,” Alchek said.

After the debate, Mr. Alcheck clarified:

“The $7.6 M in additional cost is based upon the following: $100M debt offering at .74% (the yield as of 10/18/2021) with a 5-year maturity vs the same amount issued at a 3.64%, the yield as of yesterday. The yield for AAA Greenwich is based upon 20 bps over the AAA muni BVAL curve (Bloomberg) in both cases. In actuality, the amount that Greenwich will need to finance is likely to be greater than $150M for CMS & OGS combined.”

Republicans Leslie Tarkington, Nisha Arora, David Alfano and Karen Fassuliotis during the Oct 18, 2023 Board of Estimate and Taxation debate.

There were mutual charges of “fear mongering,” with Nisha Arora doubling down – or rather tripling down after last week’s Budget committee and full BET meetings  – on her claim that Democrats were scaring parents with talk about crumbling buildings, sewage in the OGS basement, and lack of ADA compliance.

In turn, it was suggested by Democrats that Ms Arora was fear mongering by saying children would be unsafe during a renovate-in-place project with hazardous materials needing to be abated.

Notice posted outside the old GHS auditorium in July 2015. Greenwich High School, built in 1969, required mitigation of hazardous materials a few years ago when the auditorium was demolished as part of the MISA project. Students were not relocated.  State and federal regulations were strictly adhered to.

December 2015 demolition of the original GHS auditorium.

Republican Harry Fisher, an incumbent, said Republican leadership of the BET had for 100 years ensured superior financial management, a strong AAA bond rating, attractive schools, parks and town facilities and a strong real estate market.

“With respect to school funding, the conversation that we do not fund schools is absolutely false. The BET, under Republican leadership, has funded every reasonable school building and project requested by the Board of Education.”

Fisher said the town at $27,000 per pupil per year was the highest in the state and blamed the BOE for taking “so long to get approvals” for remediation of contaminated fields of Western Middle School.

Fisher said it was disingenuous to say that anyone on the BET did not support school projects.

“We’ll fund them when we have hard numbers. We have numbers that have grown old, and are prior to the design development process. None of our actions will delay the projects. It’s just a fallacy.”

Democratic candidate for BET Matt DesChamps said was not “the goal” of the Democratic party to engage in long term financing.

“We’re aware of the benefits of long-term financing can provide in certain circumstances,” he said, adding there were $1.6 billion in significant capital projects that needed to be prioritized and funded. “There are times and instances where it makes sense to consider these fundings.”

Ms Fassuliotis asserted that BET Democrats believed their only job was to finance a project and not ask questions. “We believe it is our fiduciary duty to do our due diligence and ask questions.”

“I can’t let that go unchallenged,” Moriarty said. “To say that we are indiscriminate in approving anything that comes in front of us is wrong information.”

“You will find that the 6 BET Democratic candidates here are fiscally conservative. We understand the details. We’ve done building projects ourselves. I’ve sat on two building committees and I understand what goes on.”

“The fact that there have been overruns on projects the past two years reflects construction inflation,” she said. “My Republican colleagues took the Hamill rink project that was in the budget for $21 million and it magically went down to $11 million this year in the budget.”

She noted that at Wednesday morning’s rink committee meeting, the cost was stated as $22 million. “So who is using good information and trying to plan appropriately?”

Mr. Alchek said in his career he had financed hundreds of millions of dollars in municipal dept.

“Virtually every school district, every municipality in the US, uses long term financing,” he said. “In fact they issue 30-year debt. Twenty years is considered shorter term debt.”

He said BET Democrats were committed to maintaining the town’s AAA rating. “Any debt that gets issued – whether 5 or 20 years – has to be supported by a AAA rating. I’m personally committed to that.”

“When the Republicans say we want to issue debt for five years, that is just code for, ‘We just don’t want to spend money in the first place,” Alchek added. “You all know this is just delay, delay, delay. No one is fooled by it.”

Democratic incumbent David Weisbrod said Greenwich was the only AAA community in Connecticut that uses the modified pay-as-you-go model.

“I don’t see Wilton, Darien or Westport having any financial troubles, and they are all AAA and managed very well,” he added. “If you want to stay with the modified pay-as-you go, God bless and we can do that, but there is a key word here: Pay.”

Democratic candidate Stephen Selbst said there was a fundamental policy difference between the two parties.

“I perceive my role on the BET as finding a way to finance the needs of the community way in a way that is fiscally proper,” he said.

“Ms Arora said, ‘We’re the only ones asking questions.’ It’s not true,” he continued. “The proposed budget of $100 for CMS has been the subject of extensive community debate. You have a bi-partisan building committee and strong support from the BOE.”

“What you really have is a handful of people who are substituting their judgement for the will of the community,” Selbst added.

He described long term financing was but one tool in the toolbox.

“We believe that we should find a way to find the funding for the needs of the community,” he said. “We’ve talked a lot about this cycle about the schools – and that’s appropriate. The schools are in urgent need. The Old Greenwich School renovation is an urgent need. Central Middle School is an urgent need, but we have other needs in this community that are not being met.”

He said other capital projects like ADA compliance and fire trucks were being crowded out – delayed and deferred as a result.

“Finally, we face climate change, and we’re not adequately prepared for it. Greenwich has 30 miles of shoreline – hundreds of resident homes are in the flood plane. Town assets are in the flood plane,” Selbst said, adding that four years earlier there was $1.5 million in the budget to study the problem but it had been removed.

Ms Arora said the town was lucky to have a healthy grand list and could fund the best town services without taking on debt.

“We also believe public debt is a slippery slope. It is addictive,” she said. “Our federal debt exemplifies this unfortunate trajectory.”

She summarized the Republican BET platform.

“We believe the role of the BET is to diligently evaluate the budget and make sure there is no wastage.  Our platform is to fund the best schools and services while keeping taxes affordable.”

“Conversely the Democratic platform is to provide unconstrained budgets and find ways to raise money,” Arora said. “My Democrat colleagues go with the flow like Populists do.”

David Weisbrod, Democratic incumbent on the BET laughed at the suggestion he was a populist.

Mr. Weisbrod laughed out loud.

“I’ve never been called a populist,” he said. “I spent 38 years at JP Morgan – that highly populist place. I was a vice chairman responsible for Risk Management, a really populist role.”

He said Mr. Alchek had run the municipal bond desk at Goldman Sachs. Mr. DesChamps worked at CitiGroup, Mr. Selbst was an esteemed attorney, and Leslie Moriarty had phenomenal experience in strategic planning, went to Harvard Business School and served on the Board of Education for two terms and chair for two years.

“That ought to end the notion that we don’t ask questions,” he said. “I mean, really?”

Stephen Selbst, Matt DesChamps, Elliot Alchek, David Weisbrod, Democratic candidates for Board of Estimate and Taxation during the Oct 18 LWV debate. Screengrab via YouTube live.

As for climate resilience she said it was important to reduce emissions, including by replacing regular bulbs by LED, installing solar, improving insulation on new buildings, driving electric vehicles, and installing geothermal HVACs.

But she said geothermal was somewhat unreliable and was the most expensive system.

“Let’s stop with the virtue signaling,” Arora said to the Democrats.

Ms Fassuliotis said the BOE had failed to address ADA compliance.

“I’m willing to approve (schools) capital projects that make sense,” Fassuliotis said. “The reality is that our town needs to build right-sized facilities and they should take a deep dive and revise their buildings accordingly.”

“If any Democratic opponents on the BET and BOE have their way, they will be spending you tax dollars that will drive our elderly on fixed incomes and our moderate income families out of Greenwich,” she added. “The people barking the loudest on funding are those who don’t seem to care about those folks.”

“I and my Republican colleagues on this dais will continue to represent everyone in Greenwich, not just the 30% with kids in our schools,” Fassuliotis said.

Leslie Moriarty and Stephen Selbst

Ms Moriarty talked about consensus building and the potential to tap into the knowledge of town department heads on projects.

“Instead I hear our members dictating to department heads, ‘This is the information I have. You should be able to build it for this. We know the conditions of your particular property,'” Moriarty said.

“The meeting we had at the end of June about Old Greenwich was appalling to me. We had people in the room willing to talk about the projects – the cost of renovating vs build new. There was not a conversation. It was shut down after five minutes.”

“That’s the kind of government we want,” Moriarty added. “Nobody on this dais believes there is a blank check.”

Public Safety

Bringing up fire trucks, Mr. Fisher said, “There they go again, trying to scare the public that Republicans don’t support public safety.”

“One of the ladder trucks broke down and it got fixed quickly,” he said. “We were never at risk because we have arrangements with neighboring towns,” Fisher said.

“We are committed to buying two trucks a year,” he said.

“Many have claimed that the BET is not adequately funding public safety. That simply is not true,” Fisher said, adding that in the past four years $6.5 million was invested in fire and police equipment, in addition to the new Greenwich EMS station which he said was brought to fruition under Republican leadership.

Fisher said years ago a Democratic member of the Budget committee made a motion to reduce the salary for a deputy fire marshal. “It’s the Democrats that have been trying to undermine Republican efforts in public safety. I don’t think we should stand for that.”

Mr. DesChamps who served as a volunteer firefighter, said, “It is not scaring the public to inform the public that a ladder truck was not available last month. It should be of great concern, and it was something this BET rejected repeatedly and was quoted by Ms Tarkington saying, ‘We will have one apparatus at a time.’

“It’s not fine when we need two or more apparatuses at a time. Don’t take my word for it. Speak to the Fire Dept. Talk to the chief,” he said.

During closing statements, Mr. Alchek, said there were multiple differences between the two parties.

“First, we support our schools – our kids, families and property values. We repeatedly voted in favor of financing CMS and OGS, and our opponents have repeatedly denied funding – that’s a well documented fact. Second, we want to avoid catastrophe risk. Much of our infrastructure in town has exceeded its useful life and we want to avoid something bad happening. I’m principally talking about avoiding people being hurt, but there are financial consequences as well.”

Last, he said, “Most importantly, we want to keep taxes low. Although our opponents have often raised our budget and taxes, we haven’t gotten value for our money. Each year we delay in purchasing infrastructure – like CMS and fire trucks – the price goes up. They simply have failed to keep our costs as low as they could be and should be.”

“We want to run our town like a well run company – move with urgency and keep our taxes low. Their strategy is to delay and deny, which ultimately costs more money, resulting in higher taxes.”

As for climate resilience, Ms Arora said it was important to reduce emissions, including by replacing regular bulbs by LED, installing solar, improving insulation on new buildings, driving electric vehicles, and installing geothermal HVACs.
But she said geothermal was somewhat unreliable and was the most expensive system.

“Let’s stop with the virtue signaling,” Arora said to the Democrats.

Mr. DesChamps, trained as a CPA, said Democrats would find revenue and cost cutting initiatives for the town, including federal and state grant money that he said had repeatedly been rejected.

“Economic and community development programs we can take advantage of, waste management reduction and energy costs savings plan.”

He said energy consumption was the source of major expenditures for the town and despite those costs going up 54% this year alone, the town had no effective means to control the increases.  He vowed to look carefully at ways to reduce those costs.

Mr. DesChamps suggested Ms Arora read the science about geothermal systems.

“Geothermal is a proven energy saving mechanism that is cost efficient and saves on carbon emissions,” he said.

Ms Arora said private girls school Greenwich Academy had completed a new building lower school for around $24 million, which made the $45 million for a partial renovation looked high.

She said when someone pointed out that was “apples to oranges,” she researched project costs of new elementary schools and came up with $45 million in today’s dollars, questioning the wisdom of paying as much for a renovation as for a new school.

She said when the building committee chair did not know exactly what the remediation would “look like” it reflected that “the right questions had not been asked.”

“We said we’ll waive these conditions (of the release of $1.086 million for A&E) but we’re not going to release the full construction funding ($42 million) until you go back to the community and make sure they understand what this renovation is going to look like.”

Mr. Selbst, who is a member of the Old Greenwich School building committee and whose three children attended the school, noted that the BOE, when it worked on the education specifications, had asked the community specifically whether they wanted a renovation versus a new school, as had the building committee in numerous forums.

“They were told, really in one voice, ‘We want to renovate the school,'” Selbst said.

“About the dangers of remediation, there is asbestos in OGS. There is asbestos in every building of that age,” he added. “Guess what. There are proven techniques for remediating  schools with asbestos and keeping students safe.”

“One of the reasons we selected Downes Construction as the construction manager was in significant measure because Downes’ specialty is renovation of schools in the state of Connecticut,” Selbst added.

As for the assertion that building committee chair Mr. Waters did not know the exact plans for remediation, he said, “We aren’t there yet, but I guarantee we will make everybody aware of it. It will be done safely. We will not, ever, put children in this community at risk.”

Arora interrupted. “Ask the questions before you fund.”

“I appreciate your vehemence,” Karen Fassuliotis quipped after Mr. Selbst said Democrats would not put children at risk.

“I know about asbestos,” Fassuliotis said, noting she had she had a Ph.D. in toxicology and her senior thesis was on Asbestosis and Mesothelioma. “The truth of the matter is even if you think you can control asbestos and keep kids safe…the effects won’t be seen for another 30 or 40 years.”

Democratic candidate running for re-election, Leslie Moriarty, gave her party’s Top Five priorities, a la David Letterman.

“The BET is not directly involved, but we support local control for housing development. We’ll fund capital projects to save money. Delays are costing costing us, the taxpayers, more. Emergency repairs cost more than timely maintenance. Republicans have ignored years of very low interest rates, which along with construction inflation, has added tens of millions to town costs.

“We will start funding the backlog of projects created by the Republicans. No school project in the four-year-old master has a shovel in the ground. Requests for fire trucks have been rejected every year for four years. We will replace the BET Republicans hollow words of support with actual funding,” Moriarty said.

“We will keep taxes low,” she added. “Capital investment does not have a one-to-one impact on your annual taxes. Payments are spread over multiple years so we can fund multiple projects. It’s not magic. It’s prudent and professional management.”

“Number one, we will listen because we’re your neighbors and we care about the same things as you,” she added.

Leslie Tarkington said the BET Republicans had a verifiable record of fiscal responsibility, spending and debt policy and all candidates had previously served as elected BET and/or RTM members volunteering for a total of 50 years.

“BET Republicans have delivered the safety through police, including increased presence  in schools, fire and GEMS. Republicans support a vibrant business community in distinct villages and central Greenwich, residential green spaces and tree-lined roads that provide the state’s largest taxable grand list.”

Tarkington said Republicans defend neighborhood zoning and referred to state’s affordable housing laws as “Democrat regulations to develop highrise buildings.”

“Republicans recognized that nearly half the town’s population is lower income or seniors living on fixed incomes. For young families we support a recognized public school system of education excellence with the best funded schools in Connecticut and 11 neighborhood elementary schools. And for seniors, age-friendly Greenwich and Nathaniel Witherell (town owned nursing home) and tax relief.”

“Republicans support expediting environmental remediation, drainage system improvements to reduce neighborhood flooding, aging sewer system upgrades, four libraries, and a networks of parks, beaches, swimming pool, ferry boats and golf course,” Tarkington said.

Mr. DesChamps talked about Republicans’ “irresponsible rhetoric.”

“Taxpayers rightfully want to be heard, but time and again, the Republican controlled BET has refused to listen. This is a new phenomenon in Greenwich, and not in keeping with the best traditions of bi-partisan cooperation,” DesChamps said.

“The current finance board is instead fixated on a dogmatic political ideology that spreads disinformation to confuse and distract, when what we need is sound fiscal management, and a strong vision for the future. Unfortunately these Republican candidates have mislead our community with their misinformation: ‘Super sized schools,’ ‘a new OGS will cost the same as a renovated one,’ ‘CMS should only cost $67.5 million,’ ‘Your taxes will increase 50%. ‘High rises?’

“And worst of all, scaring parents about unfounded hazards to their children’s health if OGS renovation commences. It’s inexcusable. These statements are false.”

Note: This article was updated to include additional detail from Mr. Alchek on one of his quotes.

See also:

P&Z Watch: Commission Unanimously Approves CMS Municipal Improvement; Moves Site Plan to Final Status  Oct 17, 2023

PTA Leaders’ Open Letter to BET & RTM: Fund New Central Middle School Oct 17, 2023

Arora Accused of Fear-Mongering for Calling Renovation in Place at Old Greenwich School Unsafe  Oct 15, 2023

Differences Emerge between Selectmen Candidates: Mill Rate, School Infrastructure, Witherell, PPPs Oct 12, 2023

Board of Education Debate is Civil: 3 of 4 Candidates Participate 
Oct 12, 2023

P&Z Watch: Many New Faces Testify; Old Greenwich School MI is Complete Oct 3, 2023

BET’s “Ugly, Messy Conversation” on Discontinuing OGS Independent Cost Estimator Project July 18, 2023

BET Republicans Turn Down Old Greenwich School Interim Appropriation, Favor New School  June 23, 2023

Town Lines up to Push Old Greenwich School Renovation Forward…What will the BET do? June 20, 2023