Standing Room Only BET Public Hearing Draws Passionate Residents

Monday night’s BET public hearing on the capital budget and American Recovery Plan Act spending will largely be remembered for the groups who championed or opposed specific projects.

One group supported traffic safety funding in Byram. Another group supported sidewalks on Shore Road in Old Greenwich.

A group from YWCA Greenwich waited a four-hours to ask that $150,000 be restored from ARPA funding for a sexual assault services program. The funding had been recommended by the committee that reviewed applications, but had been removed from the First Selectman’s budget.

There was a group from Glenville advocating for $250,000 toward a $500,000 project to add historic looking lighting through a public-private partnership.

Then there were the pickleball enthusiasts singing the praises of their sport, and bemoaning the deficit of pickleball courts compared to other towns.

BET members, left to right, Dan Ozizmir (chair), Leslie Tarkington, Leslie Moriarty and Jeff Ramer. March 28, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

As anticipated, the room was full, with standing room only.

BET chair Dan Ozizmir estimated there were over 150 people, many wearing facemasks since it was not possible to social distance and there are still concerns about the pandemic. Seventy-eight people spoke, each for three minutes. Over 100 comments were submitted online.

At the start, Mr. Ozizmir said he had felt strongly not to have a hybrid meeting with residents testifying via Zoom, except for people with disabilities.

“This meeting was scheduled for over six months,” he explained, adding that it was a chance to meet people in person from both sides of the aisle.

“If you don’t like that solution, I’ll take the heat. It was my decision as chair,” he said.

The meeting kicked off with comments from the two people with disabilities who received special dispensation to participate via Zoom.

Testifying via Zoom, Alan Gunzburg said, “I would have preferred not to have to identify myself as a disabled man this week, just because I needed an accommodation.”

Full house for the BET budget hearing on March 28, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Greenwich Avenue Bump Outs

A number of people testified against funding intersection bump outs on Greenwich Avenue, including Beth MacGillivray.

“We have $2.8 million for bumpouts, growing to $6 million,” she said. “Continue to make cuts and look at needs, not wants.”

Sheryl Sorbaro said, “Even if the bump outs were free I would not want them. Bump outs make parking a hassle for the busy people of Greenwich.”

Elm Street bump out. Photo: Leslie Yager

“Bump outs are not a must have item,” she added. “Greenwich Ave is lined with trees, and has planter boxes everywhere, in addition to pots overflowing with flowers hanging from all of the light poles. I do not think we need gardens jutting into the road on top of that. And I am a member of Green Fingers.

“Spending money to make conditions for residents and merchants on the Ave worse – traffic, parking problems, cars circling longer, more emissions and less business for our merchants – seems foolish to me,” Sorbaro said. “People move to Greenwich for the schools, not the bump outs.”

Alyssa Keleshian said the public comments collected by DPW’s GreenwichStreetscape.com needed to be made public.

PickleBall

Betsy Underhill, former GHS tennis coach, said she had gotten hooked on pickleball after trying it in Ridgefield several years ago.

“It’s kind of taken over my life. I became an ambassador,which means you’re going to promote it in your town – you don’t get paid for that. I asked myself why i got so addicted.”

She said, unlike other sports, pickleball players embrace new players.

“We now have the problem we have too many people,” eh said. “There is a place on Bible Street. We are hoping that the allotted funds that were set aside two years ago could be used to give us more courts. We are dying for more courts.”

Peter Uhry said it was important to separate pickleball players from tennis players and Bible Street offered that opportunity. Having two sets of lines drawn on a court was distracting for players.

Women from YWCA Greenwich waited to testify at the BET budget hearing, March 28, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

YWCA Sexual Assault Services Program Funding – $150,000

Mary Lee Kiernan, director of the YWCA, explained that while the town does fund YWCA’s ongoing violence prevention programs, restoring the $150,000 would pay to launch a new program offering sexual assault services.

She explained that violence prevention and education programs in Greenwich Schools, along with Kids in Crisis Teen Talk programs in schools, were not funded by grants, but were fee-for-service programs that had moved from the external entities section of the town budget to the Dept of Human Services budget a few years ago.

Kiernan said the school programs were different from direct service programs such as the counseling support for victims of sexual assault.

“Sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking are all explicit examples of programs that comply with the Treasury’s final rule on ARPA,” she added. “Sexual assault is an insidious problem in this community that is not adequately addressed by the very small regional organization that serves the cities of Stamford, Norwalk and six other towns including Greenwich, and the YWCA is uniquely positioned to deliver a range of sexual assault services to victims locally…”

Abby Meiselman, chair of the board of YWCA Greenwich, said domestic violence and sexual assault had soared during the pandemic, and the funding would enable the YWCA to provide services no other organization provides.

“Violence against women and girls in our community is a longstanding and very serious problem,” she said. “Nationally one in six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. Most victims are under the age of 30.”

BET members Laura Erickson, David Weisbrod, Michael Basham and Nisha Arora. March 28, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Hold Down the Budget

Some residents suggested the budget was already too high.

Brooks Harris described “an explosion in capital spending” and warned against temptation to open “the Pandora’s box of long term debt.” He also warned about the impact of inflation on an already stretched budget, and warned, “Given the frightening numbers in our current capital budget, we should have a moratorium on nice to have items.”

“Sorry, Greenwich Ave bump outs and Bible Street pickleball courts,” Harris said.

Lucia Jansen, chair of the RTM Budget Overview Committee, said target goals had been missed.

“Unfortunately, currently both the Board of Education and Town had not meet department targets. The town exceeded the 2.65% goal, coming in at 3.16% or $3.9 million over goal.

She said the BOE exceeded at the 2.25% target at 2.82%, exceeding it by $290,000.

She also talked about head count, which was also in excess. “Given the rise in inflation, we’ll likely see higher inflationary labor costs. We highly encourage a review of the allocation of resources to keep our head count flat.”

As for the capital budget, she said the recommended budget far exceeded the $70 million target, and is currently at $78.6 million.

“We know there are difficult choices, but we ask for a re-look at the priorities,” she said. “Please keep to your stated targets and work within the original fiscal year 2023 limits.”

Greenwich Schools Capital Projects

  • $1.5 each for Architecture and Engineering Funds for Julian Curtiss and Old Greenwich and $2.5 for CMS

Parents and principals testified in favor of the A&E funds for Old Greenwich School, Julian Curtiss School and Central Middle School.

Jen Behette, PTA co-president at Central Middle School said the school and community had endured an emotional and exhausting two months. The building was condemned in February. Students were dispersed to other schools while scaffolding and temporary safety measures were put in place for the students to return.

“The building was closed. Our children were displaced, and safety enforcements were needed to secure the school,” she said.

She added that while parents were thankful that interim funding for temporary safetuards was approved, “It is totally unacceptable to have a crisis act as a catalyst for change. The time is now to approve a more aggressive timeline for a rebuild of CMS.”

Central Middle School contributed form Greenwich Schools Feb 18, 2022

Mimi Duff, PTA Council president, said that while the schools budget was the biggest line item, none of the BET members had children in the schools.

“You know we are five years behind on our 15-year plan,” she said. “Following years of trimming in our budget, we should not be surprised at what’s happened at North Mianus School and Central Middle in the past two years.”

“I would remind those listening that the study used to highlight the CMS shortfalls prior to the two week closure was denied funding by the BET, and was ultimately funded by grant money with the full support of the BOE and Dr. Jones.”

James Waters said, “I strongly encourage you to support the $5.2 million in funds for Julian Curtiss, Central and Old Greenwich. We can and must do all three. There is plenty of money in the general fund and financing tools keep the mill rate under control.”

“We have plenty of qualified volunteers with appropriate skill sets to serve on building committees,” he added. “The current GPS administration oversaw the New Lebanon, North Mianus and Cardinal stadium projects, which were all completed on time and on budget.”

“Unsound structures, poor security, lack of ADA access and classrooms buid in the 1950s are simply not acceptable any more,” Waters added.

$750,000 for Sidewalks on Shore Road in Old Greenwich

Old Greenwich resident Dustin Downey said as a national developer of single family homes, his company focused on traditional neighborhood design.

“Sidewalks are absolute key,” he said. “My wife and children are not comfortable walking down Shore Rd. My wife drives the 560 feet to town every day, which is ridiculous, but it’s because she’s uncomfortable on Shore Road.”

He said the town had enough right-of-way for to create a sidewalk, though there were three to five utility pole conflicts, and some hedges that would need to be removed.

Maggie Bound said the idea of a sidewalk on Shore Road was not new, and was not a nice-to-have. The need was was first identified in the Safe Routes to Old Greenwich report in 2004. It was again studied in 2006 and 2010 and identified as a top priority. She said in 2015 the Eastern Greenwich Neighborhood Plan mentioned Shore Rd again.

Bound said today the neighborhood was blossoming with new, young families and people working from home.

“We simply ask for a sidewalk on Shore Rd to create a separation of space from our pedestrians, our school children and the vehicles.”

Liz Johnson said over the decades there had been changes in lifestyles, traffic volume, traffic patterns and driver attitudes along Shore Rd.

“I feel very strongly a sidewalk is needed for public safety,” she said, adding until the 1970s when Cummings Point Office Park and Dolphin Cove were developed in Stamford, Shore Road was a quiet road. “There were no cell phones, little construction and smaller and fewer delivery trucks,” sh esaid.

“The world has changed and Shore Rd has evolved into a toxic blend of joggers, pedestrians often with baby carriages, dog walkers, children who often must walk in the road alongside speeding cars, distracted drivers, ubiquitous online delivery trucks, heavy construction vehicles, moving vans, public buses, cement mixers and huge 18-wheeler trucks that are too tall or too heavy to go under or over the railroad bridges,” Johnson said. “All large trucks servicing those areas must get off I95 at exit 6 and enter via Shore Road.”

Jen Bencivengo, the Old Greenwich School principal, noted that only four children in her 400 student school take a bus, and about 20 arrive by car.

“The other 375 arrive via foot, bike or bucket bike. Having those sidewalks is vital for our community,” Bencivengo said.

Contributed photo. Truck crash on Delavan Ave, March 2022.

$300,000 for Byram Traffic and Safety Improvements in the Area of Delavan Ave

Nick Wiltsie from Byram said he’d reached out to the BET and received an email from a member saying Delavan Ave improvements could wait another year.

“We need stop signs. We need speed bumps, we need crosswalks. We need to slow cars down,” he said.

“On the day my wife and I moved in in January, there was a car accident in front of our house on Delavan, multiple cars were involved,” he said. “A couple weeks ago I witnessed another accident. One car was going so fast it hit another car and another car, and one of the cars it hit propelled forward 100 ft and hit yet another car. Both accidents, but for a tree and a plow, would have gone onto the sidewalk and run over any pedestrians in the area.”

Brian O’Connor who moved with his family from Brooklyn, NY to Byram, said his wife was nearly struck by a car in a crosswalk with flashing lights on Delavan.

“To cross Delavan Ave or Mill Street means taking your life into your hands. My neighbors have been hit by cars. Other residents have been killed by cars. All on the same streets and all at the same intersections.”

Lucy von Brachel pointed out that while there were no school buses for neighborhood students, it was too dangerous for them to walk to school.

“There have been too many residents hit and injured by cars in our neighborhood, and we are facing ever increasing traffic volume with the thousands of units in development in neighboring Port Chester.”

State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150) whose district includes the entire shoreline, said Byram was viewed as under-served in terms of funding and deserved the traffic and safety improvements.

“The number of dual income households where people actually cannot get here to make their voices heard is very large,” Meskers said, adding that with development at Vinci Drive and a new Hamill rink in the works, traffic will continue its dramatic increase in Byram.

Joe Kantorski said while Byram represented just 1.3% of the town’s land, it accounted for 5.3 % of total crashes and 10.7% of pedestrians injured.

“Speeding is rampant, especially on Delavan Ave,” he said. “Families drive their kids to school even though they live close enough to walk.”

Andrea Blume and members of the Glenville Beautificialn Committee waited to testify about a public private partnership to add historic lighting in that part of town. March 28, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Glenville Historic Lighting Project

Abbe Large, who took the podium with a half dozen fellow Glenville residents, said funding for the historic lighting project Glenville was separate from the Congestion Mitigationand Air Quality (CMAQ) project funding, and represented a private-public partnership, which already had $250,000 commitments from business leaders and community members for matching contributions.

“So the town will only contribute half of the $500,000 for the lighting project,” she said. “The timing for inclusion in this year’s budget is essential. Roadways will be open for the Glenville corridor project and this is a unique time to place underground conduits, wiringand lights in a cost efficient manner.”

She said once the CMAQ project was complete, the opportunity will be lost.

Greenwich Town Planner Katie DeLuca also testified in favor of the lighting, agreeing that timing was critical because the roads will be opened up.

“I could come and speak to you about all kinds of projects in the capital budget,” she said. “But this group has been meeting literally for years.”

“We are at the finish line and just need this one bit to push us over and it would really be a shame if it didn’t go through.”

Route 1 Hillside Road Bridge Project with Shared Use Path

Bob DeAngelo of Pedal Greenwich said his group sought the development of paths, protected bike lanes and infrastructure to go short distances without having to jump in a car.

DeAngelo said a prposed shared use path by Hillside and East Putnam Ave would help GHS students to bike to school and seve as the beginning link of what could become an east-west protected bike route.

“DPW’s highway maintenance line should always include analysis of how and whether to include non motorized uses,” he continued, adding that towns that enable micro-mobility – which is infrastructure for biking, scootering and e-bikes – are where young families want to be. “They are critical, quality of life features that attract young families.

ARPA Funding

Jane Sprung said that given recent flooding including Ida last September, she supported using ARPA funding for storm water and sewer projects to protect infrastructure and homes.

“I have many friends who have still not been able to move back into their homes,” she said.

She also supported ADA and HVAC improvements for public schools, but suggested reconsidering the $950,000 for HVAC upgrades at the town owned nursing home, Nathaniel Witherell.

“The town consistently allocates significant funds to Nathaniel Witherell, with mixed results. The future management of Nathaniel Witherell has not been resolved. Will the town be seeking public-private partnerships, looking for a buyer or continue to manage the facility?” she asked.

Sprung urged the BET not to appropriate the $1.1 million to the Affordable Housing Trust.

“It was supposed to only be funded by private funds,” she said. “Given our school facility crisis, we should be spending that money on schools.”

“The ARP money is not free money,” she added. “I urge you to prioritize and fix town infrastructure and school facilities and not have it go toward special interest projects.”

Affordable Housing Trust Fund

P&Z chair Margarita Alban spoke on behalf of the commission to support the $1.1 million for the Greenwich Affordable Housing Trust Fund. She said the language of the ordinance was written to allow other types of funding besides private donations.

She said at the time the trust was proposed there was no knowledge of the ARPA.

“Had we known, we would have highlighted it as a distinct possibility,” Alban said. “We do hope private donations will be a large source of support for the Housing Trust Fund.”

“In approving the ARPA allocation to the Housing Trust, you would be upholding local governance, grass roots solutions and helping prove that state control is unnecessary,” Alban said.

Bill Finger also spoke in favor of the $1.1 for the trust fund. “The town’s 2019 POCD identified the need to bring more affordable housing, and stated one of the ways to promote affordable housing is through ‘payments to a Housing Trust Fund to allow funds gathered from state and federal grants, donations and other sources to facilitate construction of affordable housing.”

“We’ve seen a recent proliferation of 8-30g applications in town,” he added. “Approving the allocation of ARP funds to the trust will enable the town to mitigate some of the effects of these developments. Trust fund dollars can be making them more compatible with our neighborhood environments and the town’s infrastructure.”