Municipal and Schools Budgets Proposed for FY ’19-20, Public Comments Focus on Turf, Ice Rink

On Thursday night Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei presented his recommended budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2019 and ending on June 30, 2020 to the BET.

After his presentation and that of the Schools Superintendent Mayo, there were about 90 minutes of public testimony which primarily focused on opposition to artificial turf. Several residents said they favor investing in grass fields with better drainage. There was also vocal support for a new Dorothy Hamill Ice Rink.

Diana Zuckerman, a 30 year health policy scientist and president of the National Center for Health Research, traveled from Washington DC to testify about artificial turf.

“Artificial turf companies say there is no evidence that the fields can cause cancer,” she said. “This is often misunderstood to mean turf is safe. It takes many years to conclude that long-term exposure is safe, and there’s no such evidence for artificial turf. The materials contain carcinogens. Year after year, day after day, this increases chances of cancer in children and later on as adults. Why spend millions on turf less safe than well design grass fields?” she asked.

Rick Loh from the Parks & Rec Advisory Board said of the Hamill Rink project,” It has taken many years to see these numbers in the budget. Hopefully you’ll keep them where they are. There has been a number of people working on this for a number years. RFPs have come back and we’re ready to take it to the next step.”

Sarah Dickinson Gleason reminded everyone Hamill Rink has produced 5 Olympians. “We need a regulation size rink and a longer skating season,” she said, going on to remind everyone of Hamill Rink’s origin was as an open air rink on a cement slab. Over the years, walls and a ceiling were added. The rink is not regulation size and there is no vestibule between the entrance and the rink, which means when it’s cold outside, the rink is cold, and when it’s hot outside, the rink heats up too

Tesei put his proposed budget in the context of the federal government shutdown and the state’s economic crisis.

“The gridlock coupled with the State of Connecticut’s continuing economic crisis with declining revenues and ongoing deficits, translates into more reductions in funding to local municipalities and increases,” he said.

Tesei’s proposed budget features a 3.85% increase in spending over fiscal year 2018-19, for a total budget of $442,307,977.

The 3.85% budget increase includes a mill rate increase of 2.99%, increasing from 11.369 to 11.709.

Tesei said that would mean a Greenwich homeowner with a $1,000,000 property would see their property tax go up $340.

Included in the budget is a proposed $53,847,000 capital budget.

Tesei put proposed capital projects in context, noting that visitors come to Town for events like Concours d’Elegance and the Wine + Food Festival.

“They look at the public resources and how well they’re maintained,” he said. “They’re a calling card.”

Tesei said his last 11 capital budgets funded more than $500 million in capital projects including the Public Safety Complex, the Glenville fire station, Greenwich Pool at Byram Park, Cos Cob Park, Greenwich High School MISA and Glenville School.

The proposed capital budget for FY 2019-20 is $57.1 million with highlights including:

• $2 Million for Soil Remediation at Greenwich High School. This will be done under the Dept of Public Works even though GHS is under the care and custody of the Board of Education.

• $50,000 for Roger Sherman Baldwin Park. This would address how to expand the waterfront in Greenwich Harbor, possibly in conjunction with harbor dredging.

• $250,000 to develop design plans for construction of a new Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink.

• $300,000 for the design of a new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.

• $100,000 for site assessment for a northwest fire station and GEMS station.

Tesei said that in northwest Greenwich, emergency response times are as high as eight to twelve minutes.  The site assessment funds are in response to a Sense of the Meeting Resolution passed by RTM last fall to identify and approve a location for the station.

All of the town’s budget documents are available here.

Think Greenwich, the town PR campaign, is entering its third year. The Town only contributed to the effort during its first year. Now the campaign is funded by local businesses. Tesei said Experience Greenwich Week last October was an offshoot of the marketing campaign and was run by Tami Ketler who runs a local PR and events company.

“The event highlighted restaurants, art galleries and merchants to increase people’s desire to come and experience the wonderful quality of life we  have here,” Tesei said.

Also, Tesei said the proposed budget fulfills the third $60,000 installment of a three-year commitment to fund the YWCA’s domestic violence education and prevention program for students at all grade levels, including YNET and Safe Dates programs for high school students. 

Greenwich Public Schools Budget

BOE chair Peter Bernstein said the board approved an operating budget of $163,364,193, which he said meets BET guidelines of less than 2% increase.

The budget reflects a 1.95% increase. Bernstein warned that some reductions are not sustainable in the long term. The Schools capital budget for 19-20 is $26,012,281.

“Schools are the main driver of why people move to Greenwich,” Bernstein said.

Interim Superintendent Ralph Mayo said both enrollment and student need are increasing, but the budget is conservative and meets BET guidelines.

Still, he said, “I don’t know how long the district can maintain a 1.95% increase.”

“We have made a great investment in the students of our town. They are our future, folks,” he said. Citing standardized test results, attendance, and college readiness, Mayo said, “Greenwich and New Canaan are the top two performing districts in the state.”

Mayo said the district’s enrollment has hovered around 9,000 students for many years.

“It’ll go up for another year or so and then flatten out,” he said. “Enrollment is projected to decrease by 80 students at the elementary school level, increase by 19 at middle school level, and increase by 98 at Greenwich High School.”

“But sometimes it feels a bus has pulled up in the front circle and people are getting out to register,” he warned.

Mayo said student need drive the budget and the number of students on free or reduced priced meals has increased by 500.

That increase, he said, reflects that students are now automatically re-enrolled in the program by the government. “Before they had to reapply,” he said.

Also, the superintendent said the percentage of children enrolled in special education has increased and that the number of students with multiple high needs has increased from 4% to 6% from 2017 to 2018.

Mr. Mayo said a further stress on the budget is the result of the inclusion of an $600,000 in the budget for out-of-district tuition.

Salaries account for 74% of the schools operating budget, and contractual increases, staffing and transportation costs also drive the schools budget.

Mayo said $720,000 in professional development was cut from the budget.

“That’s where we’re achieving our biggest savings,” he said. “It’s not a good idea, and it is not sustainable. But we can do it for a year.”

Further, savings were made but cutting 6.4 staff members. “That’s saving a great deal,” he said, adding that the district will have three fewer sections of classes at the elementary school level reflecting the projection of 80 fewer students.

Mayo said the budget includes no funds for innovation, and no funds for unanticipated costs.

He said the facilities master plan was developed by KG&D Architects in 2017.

“It’s not a wish list. It’s mostly about safety, security, accessibility, air quality/HVAC etc,” he said. “Our ask is $9.1 million on major projects.”

Mayo said those projects include $8.4 million in Cardinal field improvements, $564,000 for design studies for renovation of three elementary schools, and a $75,000 design study for the Greenwich High School entrance, which he described as a major safety issue.

“You’re not seeing Western Middle School on this list of major projects because we’re still working with consultants doing water and soil tests. We’re waiting to meet with DEEP and the EPA to come up with a plan. We’ll come back with an ask once there is an approved plan,” he said, adding, “It’s a shame because the students at WMS only have a partial field.”

Also, Mayo said Central Middle School’s field is also off the table.

“Though we’re still doing a design study that will take place in coming months, our need to use Central Middle School has diminished because we figured out our school start time challenge,” Mayo said referring to the afternoon Opportunity Block that dismisses athletes early so they don’t miss class time.

“I’ve seen the contracts. We’re amending those contracts so our consultants look at both turf and natural grass,” Mayo said. “That contract will be amended, and we’re not looking at lights at all.”

The schools budget seeks $13.8 million for infrastructure. The Eastern Middle School curtain wall (the building exterior) needs to be completed. GHS needs locker room upgrades and the high school’s cooling tower is too small to cool or heat the entire building.

At a price tag of $1.4 million, the budget includes a new GHS phone system. Mayo said the existing system could fail at any moment. Also upgrades to the wireless network would cost $259,000.

Mayo said a facilities project manager has been hired to help Facilities Director Dan Watson and COO Lorianne O’Donnell get those capital projects done correctly.

During the public hearing, Susan Rudolph said she had studied the artificial turf industry, which she described as large, rich and powerful.

“Plastic grass looks pretty but is made of petroleum,” said Ms. Zuckerman, president of National Center for Health Research. “Turf companies hide what is in it. There are no safety tests to prove artificial turf is safe for long term use. Meanwhile they advise parents how to reduce exposure. I’ve seen firsthand that officials in school systems have been erroneously assured that artificial turf is safe. Greenwich can set an important example by protecting children from artificial turf.”

Dr. David R Brown, public health toxicologist, who spent part of his career at the CDC, cited a March 2018 study of 200 soccer players with cancer. He said most of them were goalies and they suffered from Lymphomas, Sarcomas, Testicular cancer, Thyroid cancer, Brain cancer, and Lung cancer.

Patricia Taylor, who is the Director of the Plastics Project at Environment and Human Health, Inc, said that at Guilford High School, an artificial turf failed after it was installed. She said Malone and MacBroom received $87,000 for design, inspection and contract management. The field cost $1.15 million to install.

“They chose Envirofill and in 2016 the field was installed. It was used starting in 2017. Defects were noticed in 2018,” she said. “The field was literally coming apart at the seams. It cost $40,000 for consultant to look at it. And it was not in use as of May 2018.”

Taylor said that field was determined to have failed due to extreme temperatures and a drainage issue, and that there was disagreement about who was liable. Ultimately, she said the case was settled confidentially.

“The field will be rebuilt, but will not be ready for spring 2019,” she said. “Companies like Malone and MacBroom make assurances about safety, but human health risk studies have not been done.”

Taylor warned the BET that if the Town uses artificial turf to cover contaminated soil at Greenwich High School, the Town may have liability. “Plastic and rubber absorb hitchhikers – chemicals in the environment around them.”

“Synthetic turf fields are also flammable,” she added. “So they’re fenced and keep neighbors off, access is restricted and the it becomes a source of revenue.

Mary Jones with the Toxins Action Center in Boston said injuries such as burns and abrasions are more common than with real grass. “Grass turf is growing in popularity across the country.  The residents of Greenwich are not alone in their preference for grass for their playing fields. Greenwich can continue to be a leader in sustainability in Connecticut.”

Alicia Collier, the travel soccer administrator for OGRCC, said today their membership has more than 1,800 families.

“I’m here for a call for action. I’m not advocating for or against turf,” she said. “You need a comprehensive plan to increase and improve all fields in Greenwich.”

This past year there were many days that Town fields were closed due to poor drainage. She said fields at Binney Park were closed 42 of 65 days OGRCC had permits to use them. At Eastern Greenwich Civic Center, the field was closed 49 of 65 days they had permits. Lastly, she said because of heavy rain, the field at Central Middle School was only opened the first two weeks of the season.

Collier said all the field closings impacted working parents and officials who travel significant distances to Greenwich.

“We had to squeeze all the practices onto Riverside School, inconveniencing neighbors,” she said. “The kids had to practice without goals because it’s a small field sandwiched between two baseball fields.”

“The grass fields in Town are simply not enough. We need to do something to increase fields available to our youth in this town. OGRCC spent $20,000 on turf rentals last year,” she said. “Families begin to look elsewhere and we lose players to places like Chelsea Piers, which lack the sense of community that OGRCC provides. Here, kids are playing with kids from their neighborhood.”

Ken O’Donahue disagreed with all the experts. He said youth sports are valuable in the fight against child obesity and the fact that kids spend hours every day on their devices.

He said the nicotine vaping has doubled and that depression and suicide rates are increasing. He contrasted those trends with the physical and emotional benefits of youth sports.

“Our current infrastructure is deficient at best and laughable to many,” he said, adding that youth sports in the Town of Greenwich have become endangered. “The anti turf leaders have highlighted negative data. The anti turf arguments impose a natural bias.”

Meanwhile, he said, “Brunswick, Greenwich Academy, GCDS and Stanwich School will all have beautiful synthetic fields. Should only the privileged have beautiful synthetic fields?”

He said youth sports and the antidote to social isolation, obesity, depression, suicide, vaping and screen time.

“The anti turf leaders fly in experts from all over the country. They say studies don’t prove turf is safe. The argument is inherently flawed as we don’t live in a closed system,” he said. “Are we going to prioritize the self interest in a diligent minority who live near Central Middle School?”

Bryan Tunney who lives near Central Middle School, said most of Greenwich’s fields were built in swamps or are below grade. “If you do it right, it will last for years and years,” he said.

Tunney said that in drafting the new Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), a goal is to add open spaces.

“With grass you have open space; and with turf you have fenced in areas,” he pointed out.

Warren Silver, another neighbor of CMS, said the EPA, CDC, and OSHA all provide health warnings for playing on artificial turf.

“Across the country towns are passing moratoriums until they get more information on safety,” he said.

“Does Greenwich think they’re more knowledgeable than these agencies?” he asked. “We’d like BET to remove from BOE budget the place holder for an artificial turf study.”

Jason Auerbach, whose children play on the Town’s fields, agreed. “It baffles me that we’re having a debate where we’re going to expose children to carcinogens in artificial turf,” he said. “Turf fields are not common sense given all the data we have.”

“On sunny days, Town fields are closed because of the previous day’s rain,” said Vipul Kumar of Old Greenwich.

“We know where the water collects. We’ve seen parents bring topsoil and shovels to fill holes in the fields,” Kumar added. “I’ve talked to many parents, coaches and leaders of organizations… everyone agrees that we have a problem in Town, and that our fields need a lot of work. There’s not enough fields and they need work. A lot of fields used to be swamps, but there are solutions.”

There was support for the schools budget as proposed by Mr. Mayo

Maureen Bonano, co president GHS PTA, said she supported the schools budget and asked the BET to approve it with no further reductions. “The only increases are in out-of-district tuition and salaries,” she said. “We really need the front entrance upgrade project for safety at Greenwich High School.”

Karen Hirsh and Cricket Dyment, leaders of the PTA Council, said they also supported the schools budget.

“This budget is one of the tightest we’ve see in years,” Hirsh said. “If we want to continue to drive student growth we can’t sustain these reductions for long term.”

Hirsh suggested focusing on the schools’ aging infrastructure. “We’ve historically underfunded school infrastructure,” she said adding that public schools are also used by outside town groups.

Two people testified that it is paramount to acknowledge the dire financial state of Connecticut and the wish of residents to keep their taxes down.

Kim Fiorello said, “I want you to imagine a Greenwich that can weather the storm …a Greenwich that goes back to basics, where you provide just the basics.”

“A 3% mill rate is not okay with me,” she added. “To show a slide that shows just a few hundred dollars more from someone with a million dollar home? … Think about saving and spending less. Life in Greenwich is not sustainable for many of us. We want elderly folks to stay here, and younger people to move here.”

Jan Merrill said that at an October 30 meeting of the civic center committee there was no reference to a petition with thousands who oppose artificial turf, especially in an enclosed building. “The dominant users are elementary school children,” she said. “Please remove artificial turf from upcoming planning of Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.”

Susan Foster advocated for funds for Hamill Rink and supported funding for the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center. She also said she was troubled at the recent civic center committee meetings where there was “so much discussion on indoor artificial turf,” despite that it did not score on the top list of amenities residents want given the recent resident survey.

“My request is you direct the committee to proceed in the same fashion as the Hamill rink committee and not allow use of funds for indoor turf,” Foster said. “The civic center should be responsive to the needs of the community for many decades.”

Brooks Harris urged the BET to be as disciplined as possible in the operating and capital budgets.

“I’m here and am concerned because of the upcoming capital spending program by the Board of Education,” he said. “At some point the level of capital spending will crowd out future spending. We’ve got to consider that pockets are not bottomless.”

The BET Budget Committee will vote on the 2019-2020 budget on March 1. A public hearing will be held March 26. The full BET will vote on March 28.