Greenwich BET candidates make their case before Tuesday’s primary vote

September 7, 2017 GMT

GREENWICH — Seven Greenwich Republicans are days away from a primary election showdown that will determine which six of them will be on the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

Campaign signs have appeared earlier than usual in the Greenwich political season as the contenders work to make sure their supporters are the ones who turn out Sept. 12.

It is the first primary for the BET since 1993. Because of the town’s equal-representation rules, the six who win Tuesday will be the six seated on the board when it begins its new term in December. Election Day in November will only determine which party gets control of the board’s chairmanship.

The primary is open only to registered Republican voters.

Greenwich Time asked the seven candidates to state their fiscal philosophy for municipal government and what in their background or experience makes them the right choice for the BET. Candidate responses are featured in alphabetical order.

William Drake

A former member of the Representative Town Meeting, Drake is seeking his third term on the BET. He currently sits as vice chairman of the New Lebanon School Building Committee.

A town native, Drake lives in Riverside and was a principal with American Baily Company, working in acquisitions and development of businesses for the the foundry, energy and technology sectors. For the company’s affiliates he has been a chairman, CEO and director and says he has brought his experience in finance to the BET.

“For years, Republican leadership and policies have made a major contribution to our wonderful town,” Drake said. “We Republicans provide government which works, delivering important services, especially public safety, education and the preservation of our beautiful environment. We also have the duty to ensure that government doesn’t overstep its proper bounds, or it will become bureaucratic, ineffective and costly.”

Drake pledged to continue careful spending practices while managing the growth of operating costs and maintaining high-quality infrastructure by carefully choosing and sequencing capital projects.

He maintains the town should borrow only sparingly and only in the short term, touting his work on the BET’s Debt and Fund Policy Working Group, which supports a policy of modest borrowing.

“This work protects all of us from high municipal debts and taxes,” Drake said. “Republican policies help families by providing excellent services while maintaining low debts and low taxes. Modest taxes have always been important in Greenwich. We need to keep it that way. My experience in management and finance enables me to help the Republican caucus manage the town’s finances professionally and carefully.”

Andrew Duus

A first-time candidate for the BET, Duus is currently a member of the RTM and serves on the Budget Overview Committee, which has taken an active role in pushing for budget reductions in recent years. A 37-year resident of Greenwich, Duus is a retired investment banker who has stressed repeatedly throughout the campaign that the state’s current fiscal crisis is having an impact on Greenwich that must be confronted.

Duus summed up his fiscal philosophy as “live within your means.”

“Given that the population of Greenwich has always been close to its average population of 61,500 for 35 years, it would not appear to need to fund expansion of services such as new schools, sewer systems, fire stations and other projects as it had to do after World War II,” Duus said. “Yet, it still ranks among the top five municipalities in the state in terms of local taxes per capita.”

During the past decade, Greenwich’s obligations including debt and unfunded pensions have increased at a rate far surpassing that of the town’s fund balance, Duus said.

“Therefore, now it is especially critical to consider how Greenwich might deliver services more efficiently and to distinguish which services are ‘need-to-have’ and which are ‘nice-to-have’,” Duus said.

He touted his 20 years on Wall Street and as his work closer to home. On the RTM’s Budget Overview Committee, Duus co-authored the report, “Looming Budget Crisis.”

“I have spent much time and focus on the financial problems of Connecticut and how these problems might be addressed,” Duus said. “And these problems must be addressed in order for Greenwich to avoid a similar set of challenges.”

Karen Fassuliotis

A seven-year member of the RTM, where she is vice chairman of the Transportation Committee, Fassuliotis is seeking her first term on the BET. Fassuliotis is a practicing attorney specializing in elder care and has a PhD in toxicology and pharmacology, something she says gives her important experience as the town faces ongoing soil remediation expenses.

Before she became an attorney, she was employed by chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, work that included risk assessment and interaction with federal oversight agencies on toxic remediation of Superfund sites.

“I have been a tireless advocate for careful and thoughtful planning and spending of our tax dollars,” Fassuliotis said. “While our town’s fiscal policy of ‘low but predictable tax increases’ has served us well in the past, it has been over 10 years since that policy has been reviewed.”

Fassuliotis has called for annual top-to-bottom reviews of all town department spending, adopting a practice of zero-based budgeting, and said the town should not fund new capital projects without environmental testing and an understanding of total operating costs.

Additionally, with less money coming from the state and federal government, Fassuliotis said the town needs to search for “innovative ways” to provide services, including privatization, public/private partnerships, donations and corporate sponsorships.

“As a longtime resident of Greenwich, over 50 years, and past graduate of the Greenwich School system, I am closely connected with our community and our neighborhoods,” Fassuliotis said. “I am the only candidate running for the BET that has a unique skill that can be used by the town to potentially save taxpayer dollars while making our town safe.”

Debra Hess

Hess is a first-time candidate for the BET with more than 30 years experience in finance, including 14 as a chief financial officer. She has worked for public and private companies in real estate, asset management and financial services, all of which she said would serve her well as a member of the BET.

“I believe government starts at the local level where it facilitates the well-being of the community,” Hess said. “I am fiscally responsible. I support keeping our mill rate low while at the same time delivering the services necessary to sustain our quality of life, our children’s education and our property values. That means we need to maximize our tax dollars and need to ensure we are being as efficient and effective as possible.”

Hess said she would focus on capital spending and ensuring the town’s capital assets are being maintained and improved in the most cost-effective manner.

She said her work in the private sector — Hess currently is CFO at NorthStar Realty Finance — has honed skills that would be of value on the BET. Her experience in managing real estate assets can be applied to the long-term maintenance and improvement of town capital assets, she said.

“I have recent and relevant finance experience, including operating a finance organization,” Hess said. “My professional experience affords me the skills that are beneficial and relevant for serving on the BET: including leadership, financial reporting, tax and audit. I have a strong sense of what it takes to operate an organization, including knowledge of appropriate processes and controls.”

Michael Mason

The current chairman of the BET, a position he has held since 2012, and a member of the board since 2003, Mason is also a past member of the RTM. He said there are clearly defined roles for what government should and should not do.

Town Hall must provide services such as the police and fire departments, public works and public schools, he said, but public demand for wanted projects and services must be balanced with the desire to keep taxes at an acceptable level for the community.

“Municipal governments must base their decisions on public input,” said Mason, the director of brand development for Million Air at Westchester County Airport. “I support and will continue to support my position that our fiscal policies must keep taxes stable and predictable while adjusting to economic conditions.”

Mason stressed his commitment to funding liabilities like pensions while maintaining adequate fund balances, and keeping to the town’s modified “pay as you go” financing plan for capital project debt.

“These practices allow us to handle economic changes,” Mason said. “Loss of state revenues, reductions in other town revenues could cause spiking in property taxes if we change our fiscal policies. As we have seen in just the past three budgets, we addressed large declining revenues and grants but the growth in the mill rate declined. The current mill rate increase was the lowest in decades.”

Mason highlighted the strong connection to Greenwich he and his family have had as town natives.

“We are consumers of what we all call the town of Greenwich,” Mason said. “Camps, school system, recreation programs, service clubs, our parks and more. I would hope my fellow Republicans would agree that I am qualified and the person they want to serve on the BET for the next term.”

Leslie Tarkington

Tarkington has 12 years on the BET. Currently a member of the BET’s powerful Budget Committee she is also chair of the Law Committee and serves as liaison to the town’s Assessor’s Office. She pointed to her career as a senior banker, adviser and investor for Citigroup’s global financial services as experience valuable to the BET.

“I am a proven fiscal conservative,” Tarkington said. “As a member of the BET, I have led and supported efforts to achieve lower rates of increase in the mill rate, while investing in critical infrastructure for the town and schools. I have worked with the first selectman, members of the BET, Board of Education and town departments to improve operational efficiencies.”

Tarkington pledged to push for a review of all town services for efficiency, redundancy of operations, current citizen use and relevancy and said any identified services not meeting review standards should be appropriately eliminated, consolidated or made more efficient. She also said the town’s capital plan should be reviewed for timely project completion so larger or more complex projects could be deferred to “allow the pipeline of current projects to be completed as the projects move forward through the process of regulatory approvals, engineering, and construction or remediation.”

“The town must continue to encourage the public/private partnerships that have benefited the town for more than a century,” Tarkington said. “However, they must be within a selection framework based on prioritization of need, as well as processes that permit the town to manage delivery, whether by monetary gift or turn-key construction.”

She said her goal on the BET would continue to be controlling the financial demands on taxpayers while maintaining infrastructure, and preserving the residential quality of life in Greenwich.

“The decisions we on the BET have made on supporting our schools and services, improving our buildings and infrastructure, and building up our town’s financial reserve, have enhanced our town’s status as the premier community in Connecticut,” Tarkington said. “At the same time there has been a steady reduction in mill rate increases. We must keep Greenwich affordable for all residents.”

Nancy Weissler

A 40-year resident of Greenwich, Weissler came to the BET in 2013 having previously served as chairman of the Board of Education and as a 13-year member of the RTM. She spent 25 years in finance, mostly at J.P. Morgan, and highlighted her financial skills leading industry and company research teams as a virtue for the BET, where she currently chairs the Human Resources Committee.

She said she has gotten to know Greenwich government and its people.

“I very much appreciate how Republican values are the bedrock of our town,” Weissler said. “I think I’ve earned a reputation for working hard and constructively with the first selectman, the RTM, various town departments and my BET colleagues.”

Her fiscal philosophy is a simple one, she said.

“I believe that the town should maintain its infrastructure and provide an appropriate level of services as cheaply and efficiently as possible,” Weissler said.

In discussions about her role on the BET, Weissler has said she would continue to push for continued efficiencies in town government, including additional use of technology as a way to deliver services better and potentially reduce head count.

“I believe that during my past four years on the BET I have compiled a proven track record of fiscal discipline,” Weissler said. “The average annual property tax mill rate increase has tracked inflation. We managed this while absorbing the loss of $7 million in state revenues, fully funding the annual pension and post-retirement funding requirements, and maintaining our infrastructure.”

Weissler noted that during her tenure, 12 full-time positions have been eliminated from government and that as a member of the first selectman’s health care task force, she helped shift most town employees to the state’s health care plan, saving taxpayers more than $10 million a year.

“Greenwich is in a strong financial position, but we can do better.” Weissler said. “If re-elected, I will work hard with town departments and the Greenwich Public Schools to increase efficiency through technology, outsourcing and combining operations, and limit capital spending to maintenance and vital new projects while seeking public/private partnerships to fund some of these new projects”