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Greenwich BET candidates talk fiscal policy, suggest department, service evaluations

August 26, 2017 GMT

GREENWICH — Regardless of when a state budget is approved, Greenwich already has lost state education and social service aid and could lose more. Federal money for shoreline projects, roads and railway going forward is uncertain.

Insurance and retirement costs continue to rise. Reimbursement for the new New Lebanon School remains in flux. Energy costs are expected to increase and old buildings are in need of repair. The Representative Town Meeting’s Budget Overview Committee continues to demand the town curb spending and growth in the town’s tax rates.

Keeping the town’s finances in shape and its future assured is part of the job of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, which helps create the budget and oversee expenses.

With work on the 2018-19 budget beginning, the BET’s makeup determines, in part, how healthy Greenwich’s economic standing is.

It’s a responsibility that the seven Republican candidates for one of six open party seats on the BET take seriously. With a primary set for next month, their views on the upcoming budget could be a factor in whether the town’s Republicans elect them on Sept. 12.

Greenwich Time asked the candidates for their opinions on several town-related fiscal issues, including their views on the current budget, which was a leaner version than in previous years; what the budget should look like going forward; and whether Greenwich needs to cut services to keep costs down — and where the cuts should be made, if so.

The candidates are a mix of newcomers and veterans. In July, the Republican Town Committee voted to nominate incumbents Michael Mason, Nancy Weissler and Bill Drake for a new term along with first time BET candidates Debra Hess, Andrew Duus and Karen Fassuliotis. Mason is a business owner, Fassuliotis an attorney. The rest work in finances or financial services.

Not nominated were three longtime BET Republicans, James Lash, Leslie Tarkington and Arthur Norton. Lash and Norton declined to pursue their candidacies further. Tarkington, who also works in financial services, collected enough signatures to force the primary.

Current state of the budget

Mason, the BET’s chairman, said steps taken by the board have left the town in good shape. The current budget developed by First Selectman Peter Tesei and approved by the BET had reduced spending and produced a lower mill rate than typical: 11.396, an increase of the 2016-17 mill rate of 11.202.

“Greenwich has made very wise decisions relating to the economic reality going back to 2008,” Mason said. “We have fully funded all of our liabilities, created a fund balance both for operating and capital, kept our debt short and eliminated defined benefit retirements, except for public safety employees. We have addressed capital spending moving forward.”

Drake called the current budget “a success for the taxpayer” with the lower mill rate and $48.5 million in the town’s fund balance. He and Weissler have evaluated policies to ensure steady and conservative financial management he said, and plans to continue working to keep the town’s finances sound.

“Our responsibility is to ensure the services and quality of life for which Greenwich is known,” Drake said. “The town has adopted a formal, proven process to improve the delivery of excellent services. ...This process has yielded results, and we will work to ensure future improvements in service.”

Going forward

Many of the candidates suggested looking at current practices to see where services could be performed more efficiently.

“We should prioritize for cost effective, innovative ways to provide services, such as privatization, public-private partnerships and/or donations, or corporate sponsorships,” Fassuliotis said. “Nothing should be off the table. We should hold the Board of Education accountable for vetting all academic programs for success, failure and remediation. We should apply common-sense solutions for maintaining and upgrading buildings and resist the temptation to super-size these capital expenditures without sacrificing quality.”

Duus, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, said the development of the 2018-19 budget will have challenges.

“Greenwich taxpayers already pay high local property taxes in absolute terms. There are significant contractual wages increases for many town employees already scheduled for next year. Finally, budget preparation next year becomes even more difficult given the economic uncertainty engendered by the absence of a state budget for this year,” he said.

With Greenwich taxpayers overburdened and said the state’s fiscal mess unsettled, the town needs to consider outsourcing some of its services, he said.

Weissler also said the town needs to do more with less.

“To do so while maintaining the essential services residents value, town departments and the Greenwich Public Schools will have to focus on increasing efficiency through technology, outsourcing and combining operations and limiting capital spending to maintenance and vital new projects while seeking public-private partnerships to fund some of these new projects,” Weissler said.

Hess said the budget focus also should look at capital spending, since past neglect led to years of spending to make repairs and build new facilities at a higher cost than would have been if maintenance had been done each year.

“We need to ensure that we are being as efficient and effective as possible,” Hess said. “We need to challenge how we operate and improve efficiencies which will reduce costs while at the same time maintaining the services our residents want.”

Tarkington also is calling for a review of services for efficiency, redundancy of operations, current citizen use and relevancy.

“After proper analysis and agreement among town leadership, including the first selectman and BET, any services identified should be appropriately eliminated, consolidated, or made more efficient,” Tarkington said. “In addition to services, the capital plan should be reviewed for timely project completion. Larger or more complex projects should be deferred to allow the pipeline of current projects to be completed as the projects move forward through their process of regulatory approvals, engineering and construction or remediation.”

Mason said the BET’s job was to make sure that all the voices that go into both the budget and the level of services spending were heard.

“Service levels being adjusted will be based on working within budget guidelines,” Mason said. “If the town departments, including the Board of Education, can meet the budget guidelines or if needed by finding more efficient ways to deliver services, then we should maintain level services. If not, the next step would be in the consolidated budget that comes from the First Selectman. At this point the First Selectman and Board of Education can take steps to define which services would be adjusted.”

Service cuts

Drake said that cutting services should not be off the table, but should be looked out as a last resort.

“We should always be focused on reducing spending but we should not start with the premise that services will need to be reduced,” Hess said. “In order to maintain our low mill rate, given the contractual increases we are already committed to along with other pressures, we will need to reduce spending. It would seem premature to discuss a cut in services without first fully exploring all cost saving opportunities.”

Duus took much the same stand.

“I think that the current environment requires prudent financial stewardship,” Duus said. “Required may be some reduction of services, which, if any, would need to be fully and broadly discussed and evaluated.”

Weissler offered the idea that residents might be willing to support some service cuts if it resulted in lower taxes but also said she believed the current services could be maintained, just at lower costs.

“The town’s senior managers are being trained ... to achieve that goal and so far, we’ve seen cost savings from the combination of some functions and headcount cuts,” Weissler said. “The Town also needs to look at outsourcing to provide services at a lower cost.”

The BET’s Budget Committee will hold its next meeting on Sept. 12 with budget guidelines for 2017-18 on the agenda.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com