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Bob Horton: Take a long view toward planning, compensation

January 22, 2018 GMT

Writing as a newly minted grandfather, I can attest that the future arrives way too fast. My little girl gave birth to a little girl in her adopted home town of New Orleans in late December. As I cradled young Georgia Grace Evans in my arms for the first time, I thought, “How did you arrive in my life so quickly?”

In truth, it was a perfectly timed event. My daughter, Molly, is a beautiful young woman of 27 who is building a very nice family life in the deep South. She proved she was her father’s daughter when she said, with a broad smile on her face, “Georgia was born in time for a tax deduction this year.”

Do not panic, dear reader. I am not going to take my allotted space this week to drool over my daughter and granddaughter. At least not any more than I already have. Instead, I am going to make a rather awkward transition from my extended family’s future to the future of Greenwich and its employees.

Every 10 years the state requires each of its 168 cities and towns to create a Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), master plans designed to guide “physical and economic development” for the next decade. The next decennial starts in 2019. Town planners and consultants are well into the process and just this week they completed three days of public meetings.

The value of a long-term plan is evident to anyone who has protested land use issues at a zoning meeting, argued for more affordable housing, or wondered why certain roads flood and beaches close at even the hint of heavy rain. The two-year municipal election cycle dampens elected officials’ desire to tackle big issues that cost big dollars. Ideally, a 10-year plan would give nervous politicians some cover for taking the long view on key public safety, health and environmental issues.

Instead, POCDs usually are so vaguely worded that all sides of any issue can use it to argue their cases. It would be informative if each POCD included a report card on how well the town had achieved its goals in the previous decade.

But even with its considerable imperfections, the POCD is an important working document. If you want to get involved or just get informed, use your browser to search for the 2019 POCD website that is reached through the Planning and Zoning section of greenwichct.org.

Governments are structurally biased toward short-term goals and cost savings that often minimize long-term benefits. Yet, the pace of change in everything from technology to traffic requires thinking three, five, 10 or even 30 years ahead. That pace also requires evolving skill sets in the town workforce. The POCD should at least try to define as specifically as possible what the town workforce of the future should look like, and how the town can adapt its hiring, training and compensation practices to attract the skills needed for a well-run municipality that delivers local services efficiently.

Compensation is a big part of that, and news on that front this week was not encouraging. This paper reported on differences of opinion over labor negotiations between two RTM committees. An arbitrator ruled in December that the town did not have to increase its matching contributions for some municipal workers’ retirement accounts.

“An amazing wonderful outcome,” said Lucia Jansen, RTM Budget Overview Committee chairman, commenting on the arbitrator’s decision. She added that it would enable the town to take a “harder line” in future negotiations.

The nation’s experiment with self-funded retirements has not worked. A shockingly low percentage of people nearing retirement have adequate financial reserves to retire comfortably. We hear both Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut saying pension plans are too expensive, and they want to balance the state’s books on the backs of its retired or retiring workers. It just does not pass the basic fairness test to me.

The town has already moved away from a pension system for part of its work force. And it turned a blind eye for 10 years as the Retirement Board mismanaged its pension fund investments. Pinching pennies in retirement contributions is not “an amazing wonderful outcome.” It is a big detriment to a secure future for town workers.

Thoughts of a secure future lead me back to Miss Georgia Grace Evans: may you sing and dance in many second lines. Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Bob Horton can be reached at bobhorton@yahoo.com.