LWV/Round Hill Assoc Zoom Panel with Selectmen Touches on Rainy Day Fund, Absentee Ballots, Tipping Fees

On Sunday evening the League of Women Voters and the Round Hill Association hosted a webinar on Zoom where the panelists were the three members of the Board of Selectmen.

The questions were funneled through John Conte, president of the RHA, and Sandy Waters, who is president of the LWV Greenwich.

Topics ranged from tipping fees/Pay As You Throw at the dump, to the $3 million cut from the BOE’s proposed budget for Greenwich Schools in 20-21.

The Selectmen were asked about using the Town’s Rainy Day Fund to bridge that gap in the superintendent’s proposed schools budget and to comment on the BET vote to keep spending the previous year’s levels.

There were questions about the diminished grand list, given that non profits, including private schools and Greenwich Hospital are buying properties which become tax exempt.

During the event, Sandy Waters prodded the Selectmen on use of the town’s Rainy Day Fund. The context was the BET’s decision to cut $3 million from the BOE’s proposed budget.

“The rainy day fund is just that – it’s a rainy day fund to be used for an extraordinary situation, which this situation would certainly qualify as,” Camillo said.

Camillo went on to say, “I’m a little uncomfortable speaking because I wasn’t in on those deliberations the BET had….I don’t want to say something that would be misinterpreted as a criticism.”

Selectwoman Lauren Rabin, who is a former member of the BOE, said, “Whenever you hold a budget flat, and you are delivering a service, and you have contractual obligations, there’s concern.”

She said she hoped officials would come together to compromise without “emotion and angst.”

“But right now I don’t see that happening,” Rabin said.

Selectperson Jill Oberlander said, “I think there is capacity in the rainy day fund to address the under-funding and stay within our policy.”

“It’s a very challenging time,” she continued. “We’ve seen an outpouring of commentary from the citizenry, which has been fantastic for public engagement. We need to be listening to our residents and our parents.”

“There was a request from 6 members of the BET to have a special meeting to reconsider, and that request was denied,” she said, adding, “Our property values are reliant on our excellent public schools, which we want to maintain.”

Asked about encouraging New Yorkers to come to Greenwich to buy properties, given that city dwellers are longing for more open space after being cooped up in apartments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Camillo said he hoped short term renters would become buyers.

Camillo said the food scraps, originally scheduled to launch on April 1, and postponed due to the pandemic, will launch in a few weeks, in addition to a textile recycling program.

Also, he said, the sustainability committee chaired by Selectperson Oberlander lobbied successfully for electric charging stations at town hall.

“Jill convinced me to do it this year and Al Monelli found the money in his budget,” Camillo said, referring to the town’s Superintendent of Building Construction & Maintenance.

As for plans for the redevelopment of Greenwich Plaza, Camillo said, the proposal was controversial, and that he had convened a bi-partisan committee of six including BET members, RTM members, a commercial real estate professional and someone with a finance background to study the proposal.

“The deal that drove everybody crazy is gone,” he said. “We’re waiting on a counter proposal from the developer….We’re doing all we can to make sure that we would be a good partner, and encourage the redevelopment on Railroad Ave, but make sure that the tax payers will be absolutely protected.”

Camillo was also asked about the balance of open space and preserving the residential character of back country’s 4-acre zone, particularly given interest from developers in adding private schools in those residential neighborhoods, and noting that schools properties are tax exempt.

Camillo said he liked the Historic Overlay incentive to preserve historic properties, but said the controversy over the former Mel Gibson property showed the incentive had unintended conseqeunces.

Last summer a developer proposed 28 residences on the 75 acre property, in turn for preserving the facade of the house, an Elizabethan Tudor built in 1927.

The applicant proposed to re-subdivide 75.72 acres into two lots. One would be 9.21 acres and would retain “Old Mill Farm,” which Gibson had dubbed it “Wayne Manor.” The second would have a Conservation Easement area of 31.24 acres, and would have featured 28 homes on 17 acres.

Camillo said he hoped the Historic Overlay had been tightened up.

As for private schools buying properties in residential neighborhoods and taking them off the tax rolls, Camillo referred to a cumulative impact.

“We’re happy to have our non-profits, private schools and the hospital, but there is a concern when they buy up whole blocks,” he said. “It comes off the tax roles and they are getting free services.”

Camillo said the trend in Greenwich was a concern and the Town is getting closer to a tipping point.

“When I was in the legislature, I spoke to some urban legislators and for some, 50% of their tax bases are non profits (and exempt),” he said. “Right now we can handle it , but if it continues…I’d like to encourage a tightening up.

Camillo said he had proposed tipping fees as an alternative to PAYT when the former was not well received.

“PAYT is in 43 states, but we heard it takes months and months, and it is now getting a resurgence,” he said. “We weren’t there.”

He explained that previously the town was paid for its recycling, but now pays $65 to have it carted away.

“We wanted to be proactive,” he said. “One town has Pay As You Throw, and one town has nothing – and that’s us.

He said the tipping fees plan is ready to go. “It’s all set up to go so it will cover the budget hole, and it’s worked in other towns.”

Waters asked the Selectmen if they supported expanding absentee ballots for voters who don’t want to vote in person due to fears of contracting COVID-19 voting. There is a primary in August and a general election in November.

“We may have to,” Camillo said. “We’re doing a lot of things differently now. I know there is concern about voting by mail and absentee ballots. Whatever it is, we’ll adapt and get it done. We may be in the second wave of this in November. We don’t know. We have to prepare for it.”

Oberlander said she supported anything that expanded access to voting.

“It’s one of our foundational democratic rights,” she said. “We should be allowing for increased use of absentee ballots and voting by mail.”

She said vulnerable people should be kept safe from the virus.

“We need to make sure we preserve every individual’s access to and right to vote,” she added.

When Camillo was asked about restricting Airbnb’s, he said, “We will have a policy on Airbnb this year.”

He noted  that currently there is a ban against short term rentals under 31 days, but post COVID-19, a new policy would protect people renting out two rooms and do something about people renting out more than that.

“Some of the concerns were that if someone is doing (AirBnb) a lot – an elderly person could be living next door, and could be vulnerable if there are parties,” he said.

Camillo said if there were a silver lining from the pandemic it might be the ability to hold meetings on Zoom, if there were a storm, for example.

He said working remotely saves space in town hall and reduces the number of cars on the road.

As for loosening of restrictions on businesses, he said, “We’re talking with businesses now about a plan to allow not only restaurants to open up after May 20, but also retailers.”

“There’s some really cool ideas that also make sure we stay within the confines of what we’re allowed to do,” he added.

More information on the Round Hill Association is available online.

More information on the League of Women Voters of Greenwich is Available online.