After Greenwich’s budget vote, debate rages on over fire station
GREENWICH — The RTM approved the town’s $444.1 million municipal budget for 2019-20 on Monday night without making many changes. But one change left advocates of a Northwest fire station concerned about the project’s future.
Before voting 149 to 30 with two abstentions to adopt the overall budget, the Representative Town Meeting cut $100,000 that had been allocated for property evaluation and due diligence for possible sites for a combined home for the fire department and Greenwich Emergency Medical Services.
The RTM’s vote to make the cut 102 to 91. Those supporting the cut said they don’t oppose a new fire house, but they want an independent study conducted first on townwide fire coverage. The study would determine response times all over town, whether stations are in the right locations and whether a northwest station is truly needed, they said.
So the RTM approved a separate budget line of $75,000 to fund the study. Supporters of the cut pledged to abide by the study’s recommendations — even if it determined a northwest fire station is needed.
“This is not a vote against the northwest station, it’s a vote to give us an understanding of the entire town’s fire situation,” said Rob Perelli-Minetti, chair of the RTM’s Finance Committee.
Completing the study before authorizing the evaluations of possible sites makes for far better planning than the “ready, fire, aim planning approach” that has not served the town well in the past, Budget Overview Committee Chair Lucia Jansen said.
“The BOC will welcome the recommendations, whatever they may be,” Jansen said. “In fact, the BOC went so far as to say that the committee would state up front that we would support an interim appropriation if necessary to implement the recommendations prior to the normal budget cycle.”
The town has not completed an independent fire study since 1989, she said. The RTM rejected a fire coverage study in 2017, but Jansen said that study would not have been an independent analysis and this one will be.
Northwest Greenwich residents have been pushing for a new firehouse for years, and the plan had the strong backing of First Selectman Peter Tesei and the command staff of the Greenwich Fire Department. Many residents say that fire coverage is lacking in northwest Greenwich and that emergency response times are too long in that part of town because of traffic and the distance from existing stations.
Several speakers in favor of cutting the $100,000 said the independent study could be completed quickly — perhaps within 12 to 16 weeks. But advocates of keeping the money in the budget expressed skepticism about that claim.
BET Chair Jill Oberlander said Tuesday that the study has not been scoped out, and the BET has not indicated a timeline for completion.
“I do not know where RTM speakers received the timetable” that they used at the meeting, Oberlander said. “They did not contact me for input. Funding for this study becomes available on July 1, and the BET will look to start work on this review as close to that date as possible.”
With the budget approval, the BET will begin to discuss the “the scope and goals of the fire study,” Oberlander said. On several occasions, the BET said it wanted the study and the property due diligence to happen at the same time and had not wanted the due diligence money to be removed.
Members of District 10, which covers northwest Greenwich, were disappointed by the vote.
“I am concerned that this study will only lead to more questions and people asking for more studies than to an actual finding,” District 10 RTM Chair Gerald Anderson said Tuesday. “I hope that’s not the case, but that’s what I believe.”
Funds to begin the development of a new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center and a new municipal ice rink in Byram were kept in the budget.
A motion failed that called for cutting $500,000 from the $3.9 million that was set aside to replace the bleachers at Greenwich High School’s Cardinal Stadium as well as design for better handicap accessibility, parking, team rooms, changing facilities and bathrooms. The motion was voted down with 68 votes in favor and 113 against with two abstentions.
The motion was made by District 7 Chair Wynn McDaniel, who wanted more scrutiny of what could eventually be a $21 million upgrade and expansion of Cardinal Stadium. She said there was support for the “long overdue renovation” for the bleachers, new bathrooms and new team rooms, but they had wanted more time to examine the second phase of the project because it calls for new parking lots and new roadways, which would be a “major reconfiguration” of the campus.
Several speakers, including Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein, said the project’s first phase will replace the broken bleachers and address problems with the press box. It will not address accessibility issues, the bathrooms and other problems — the allocation of funds was needed, he said.
“When you start cutting the architecture and engineering money for phases two and three, you’re cutting the very things that need to be done,” said Susan Fahey, secretary of the RTM’s Education Committee.
The project is only in the design phase for the second part and beyond, and the public will have many opportunities to speak on it, Bernstein said.
In another budget cut, dozens of town employees will see a small reduction in their salary increases. The RTM approved a cut put forward by the BOC to reduce the salary increase for 55 town employees who are classified as management confidential employees from 2.5 percent to 2 percent, an across-the-board reduction of $38,567.
The employees, who are not members of labor unions, are typically department heads and other high-ranking officials. The cut will keep the salary increase within the rate of inflation and in line with what the town was giving to 2,000 town employees in labor unions, Jansen said. She pointed out how much labor contracts drive the size of the town budget.
“The RTM must be firm in holding total costs of contracts to the rate of inflation, otherwise adherence to the BET mill rate guideline policy will become impossible without sacrificing services or raising taxes to levels unacceptable to residents,” Jansen said.
The RTM’s Education Committee and Finance Committee also strongly endorsed the motion, saying it wasn’t much money but “set a really important precedent.”
“This is a really strong message to send to the various unions we’re negotiating with that we’re not unduly favoring management over employees,” Perelli-Minetti said.
The BET will meet next Monday to formally set the mill rate, which will increase 2.97 percent for 2019-20.