Last November, Joe Solari III won a seat on the RTM for District 8 as a write-in. He was excited to learn more about how the town works and hoped that as a volunteer he could make a difference.
Solari, who is married and has young children, graduated from Georgetown where he majored in Government. He received an M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He first moved to Greenwich in 1998.
Speaking to Greenwich Free Press on Monday at Greenwich Library, Solari said it didn’t take long before the RTM sessions held at Central Middle School, took on something of a Twilight Zone quality.
“The RTM is in large part supposed to serve as a check on spending,” he said. “But, it doesn’t appear to be doing so.”
Having first expressed his disappointment with the Town’s predilection for spending at a CIP hearing at Town Hall in January, Solari said his initial exposure to the RTM and budget process has only confirmed his concerns. (At CIP Hearing, RTM Member Voices Concern about Greenwich’s Spending)
“My initial impression is that the RTM as a whole appears to be more concerned with nominees for boards and commissions, than on the size, priorities and direction of the town’s overall budget,” he said, adding that, among other things head counts must be reduced and projects questioned including the northwest fire house and New Lebanon School.
“Why is it ok to increase spending and raise the taxes every year?” Solari asked. “I’ve heard that it’s a great achievement that our mill rate is only rising 2.5%, but we can do and have to do better. 2.5% is greater than the rate of inflation. Add the increases in the grand list despite the population not increasing, and the issuance of more and more debt, and we are we on our way to a rude awakening. Why does Greenwich, unlike, for example, nearby Fairfield, keep increasing its budget and taxes when the town is continually and will inevitably be negatively impacted by the declining state of the state?”
Solari said Greenwich should be preparing for the worst at this point, and that more cuts from Hartford are in the works. “Even the threat of cuts from Hartford should signal the reevaluation of our overall spending priorities as well as new capital projects like New Lebanon School.”
Greenwich is not immune to the struggling state economy overall, and that he’s already seeing companies and wealthy people exit Connecticut for more economically attractive states, including Florida and Texas.
“With the internet, people simply don’t have to live in the tri-state area to work here,” Solari said. “If Connecticut was like, for example Texas – a fast-growth, low tax state that young people and companies and jobs are moving to – it would be different. He predicts that wealthy people and companies could continue to simply move away. “That people will always desire and choose to live here is simply no longer true.”
“Maybe people have their heads in the sand,” he said. “But it is not pre financial crisis Greenwich or the Greenwich of 20 years ago, times have changed,” Solari said.
Solari pointed to a story by Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) economist Pete Gioia, who wrote on Monday that in Connecticut, “We are still struggling to come to terms with a stubborn new economic reality.”
He described being disappointed at members on the Finance Committee’s suggestion that the Town borrow money while interest rates are low.
“I’ve heard folks keep saying the rates are low, but by adding long term debt, that’s kicking the can down the road,” Solari said. “What happened to ‘pay as you go’? What kind of Greenwich are we creating for our children and grandchildren?”
“It’s hard to understand why we do not start with how much we’re willing to spend each year, and make the budget find the funds, rather than just deciding the wish list we want, setting mill rate, increasing grand list, and borrowing to cover it all,” Solari continued, adding that it was unfortunate that Lucia Jansen, chair of the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC), was cut short by the RTM moderator last week when she attempted to share her committee’s report on the budget.
“When she wanted to talk about the budget, she was cut off,” he said.
Reached by phone, Jansen, who has been on the RTM for 12 years, echoed many of the sentiments of Solari. “I was upset that my committee’s report did not get shared at the meeting. Our mandate is to advise and guide the body on the budget,” she said of the BOC’s role in RTM.
“Greenwich thinks it’s in a bubble immune from economic events in the state and US,” Jansen said. “But the reality is that the impact is felt directly with our nursing home that has reduced Medicare/Medicaid funding, our schools with the $3.4 million cut, and our hospital with the pilot cut.”
Referring to the moment she was cut off by the moderator at last week’s RTM meeting, Jansen said the moderator’s justification was that her update was not on the call. “The BOC never has an assigned RTM call item. It’s never on the call,” she said. “Our hard work is not being reported.”
Jansen said the BOC is there to advise the body on the budget and to wait until the night of the vote is too late.
“Head count is truly an issue,” Jansen said, adding that the BET had described in its own budget guidelines that there should not be any new personnel without an offset reduction somewhere else. “The proposed budget has 12.61 new personnel.”