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Budget draft guidelines begin taking shape

September 14, 2016

GREENWICH — The first look at Greenwich’s 2017-18 municipal budget began to take form Tuesday night with discussion of draft guidelines calling for a 2 percent increase in the town’s operating budget.

The town is operating on a $427 million budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, and every year the work on the budget begins when the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s Budget Committee issues guidelines on how much the next budget should grow. The guidelines are non-binding, but provide a framework.

The centerpiece of the new guidelines, which are only a draft and not yet finalized, could well be bipartisan cooperation. For the past four years, BET Republicans and Democrats have split evenly on the guidelines, with Republicans holding the tie-breaking vote. But a unanimous vote could be in the cards.

“It’s a great first step toward us coming together on guidelines,” Budget Committee member Mary Lee Kiernan, head of the board’s Democratic Caucus, said. “I’m feeling positive about it at this point. There are a variety of very thoughtful comments out there and maybe some differences on language and certain other concepts, but I think we’ve come a long way.”

Seeking department input

Budget Committee Chairman James Lash said he wanted to address the confusion in town departments that resulted after last May’s Representative Town Meeting during the final budget vote. The RTM’s Budget Overview Committee successfully made a motion to cut $1.4 million, some of which was later restored, across the board to 32 town departments it said had gone beyond the BET’s budget guidelines. Department heads were left scrambling.

“People didn’t know what was going to be cut,” Lash said, “so part of what we’re trying to do with this draft is ask town departments to be specific about what things are likely to be impacted if there are additional cuts in the budget.”

Committee members and the members of the BET present at Tuesday’s commented about the draft guidelines. Budget Committee member Leslie Tarkington suggested reducing the projected 2.5 percent increase in salary expenses from 2016-17 to 2017-18 to 2 percent, which she said could be done, though it could result in layoffs.

Tarkington said increased use of technology and better efficiency could result in there not being a reduction of service in the town, and she urged town departments to take the initiative so the BET didn’t have to always make the tough choices and end up having to be “the bad people.”

“We have many different places in Town Hall that collect residents’ money, whether it’s for beach cards or for parking tickets or tax collection” Tarkington said. “Maybe we need one window where all payments could be made. And along the same idea, maybe we should only have one credit card processor for all the departments. Would that be more efficient and less costly? We need to come up with things through transition over the next nine months or year where you might need nine people fewer.”

Budget Committee member Jeff Ramer also focused on the possibility of layoffs, but said he wanted to adjust language in the draft about budget reductions which would have resulted in major layoffs. The language is strictly there to give examples of what projections would look like if they actually happened, Ramer said.

“I had the concern that this would be seized upon by our colleagues in the Budget Overview Committee as being suggestions for cuts they could make,” Ramer said. “After all, they could say that these cuts were proposed in the BET’s own guidelines. That would be a misstatement, since they’re not being proposed by us but they are being cited by us, and I don’t want to be inviting the Budget Overview Committee to be making those cuts and pointing to us as the author of it. I’d rather delete the passage.”

The BOC is expected to release its own document about what it would like to see in the 2017-18 budget.

Early in the process

Kiernan noted how early in the process everything is, and how there are several key unknown factors for next year’s budget, including not having a 2016 audit yet as well as information from the first selectman and superintendent of schools about what their budget requests will look like.

“There are a lot of variables still in play,” Kiernan said.

She praised parts of the guidelines about working with town departments to find opportunities for savings in their operating budgets and in refining and improving the town’s 15-year capital plan.

Work on drafting the guidelines will continue for the next month. Lash warned his colleagues not to get too hung up on specific language, because it could all be changed. The discussion inside the committee is expected to lead to a vote at its Oct. 13 meeting with a vote possibly being taken by the full BET on Oct. 17, on moving the guidelines further.

Lash said he was hopeful of hitting that target, because it would be best for town departments putting their 2017-18 budgets together to know what the BET is thinking.

The actual specifics of the budget will not be revealed until next February, when First Selectman Peter Tesei presents his budget for 2017-18 and the BET begins its work.

kborsuk@scni.com