BET Budget Committee chairman Joe Pellegrino said at Tuesday’s meeting of the 4-member Budget Committee that he has tried to craft budget guidelines that will get at least 7 votes on the full 12-member board. And that’s exactly what’s destined to happen Monday night. His draft guidelines are expected to garner 6 Republican votes plus the Republican chairman’s second tie-breaking vote.
The 2-2 party line split on the Budget Committee is expected to carry over to the full BET with a 6-6 party line split.
And that’s a pretty sad ending to these past months of budget guidelines discussions during which there was little, or no, Republican flexibility regarding key points of difference with the Democrats.
How much better it would have been had the Budget Committee chairman set out from the beginning to craft budget guidelines intended to get 12 votes, as has been the intent ever since the Budget Committee began publishing guidelines 13 years ago.
Never before have the budget guidelines – and they were intended to be just that, a guiding framework, and not an edict – generated controversy. And that’s not because the Democrats acquiesced to the Republicans, as some commentators have claimed. To the contrary. Because Republicans and Democrats worked in a collegial manner, and treated each other with mutual respect, Democrats have always had considerable input, more influence than many realize.
But it seems, no longer. Now it’s just about 7 votes. Raw Republican power. And this has forced the Democrats to produce their own set of guidelines, which are now online and well worth reading. They are consistent with previous guidelines and past BET practice.
The Democrats’ guidelines provide for the same range of mill rate increase – 2% to 4% -that the BET budget guidelines always have. There’s always been a range. Pellegrino’s draft does not allow for any range. It’s an edict: no more that 2% increase in total operating costs. And in radical departure from past practice, Pellegrino’s draft caps total operating costs at $340,400,000, something unheard of.
As the two Budget Committee Democrats, Bill Finger and Jeff Ramer, have repeatedly pointed out, this cap and arbitrary 2% increase will inevitably do harm to the services town residents want and expect and will constitute a reduction given fixed costs that include 2.5% contractual salary increases.
Rather than focus solely on the mill rate increase, the Democrats’ guidelines provide for a balance between maintaining services and an appropriate mill rate increase. The Pellegrino guidelines are weighted against the service side of the equation in this balancing act. Again, the Democrats’ guidelines are consistent with past policy, while the Pellegrino draft reflects a significant change in policy.
What is different from previous guidelines is the idea that town departments submit budgets at three levels:
“We place a priority on the maintenance of level and predictable municipal services, upon which our citizens rely. For each of the past thirteen years that the BET has been publishing Budget Guidelines, we have noted the longstanding policy of the BET to maintain mill rate increases in the 2%-4% range. Nevertheless, so that we might more fully evaluate the cost of level services and the efficiency of their delivery, we are requesting that each Department and Appointing Authority propose budgets at each of three levels.”
The three budget scenarios that are proposed are 1) a level services budget, assuming an overall target mill rate increase of 3% that takes into account the contractual increases, 2) a budget that assumes an overall target mill rate increase of 2.5% using up to a 2% increase in operating budgets, and 3) a budget that assumes an overall target mill rate increase of 3.5% using up to a 2.75% increase in operating budgets.
What could be more reasonable than that? Wouldn’t these three budget scenarios give the BET valuable information in their subsequent budget deliberations in an effort to best balance services and mill rate increase?
The fact that Budget Committee Republicans rejected this proposal, which should have brought the parties together, is a clear indication of Republican intransigence. This proposal incorporates Pellegrino’s target mill rate increase, as well as the range Democrats would like to see. And it allows for more informed decisions when making cuts during the budget deliberations.
It’s inclusive and designed for the best possible decision-making. What objections could there be to this approach? It has no downside, from any point of view.
One must, therefore, conclude that Republican intransigence reflects a lack of concern for an inclusive, transparent and informed decision making process. One speculates that something very different is driving this. It would appear the tune is now being called by the budget slashing movement that began in the fall of 2010 with the RTM District 7 sense of the meeting resolution.
But it would be a mistake to think this movement is representative of the majority of Greenwich residents. Or that the BET’s responsibility is only to focus on low taxes. Or that taxpayers aren’t concerned about the town’s investment in high quality public education and the maintenance and improvement of its infrastructure as well as an array of municipal services, including social services.
These are the things that maintain our property values. And the BET has a responsibility to see that taxpayers get good value for their money, that their tax money is efficiently used, and that all town residents, including those who don’t pay property taxes, benefit from living in Greenwich.
The Democrats have proposed budget guidelines that are sensitive to these resident concerns and that are totally consistent with previous bipartisan policy, including using the fund balance to hold down the mill rate.
The only really new suggestions are on the capital side. These include the suggestion that the BET review its debt policy before the budget deliberations begin and also consider models for long term borrowing that would take advantage of historically low interest rates.
The guidelines the Democrats are proposing are completely consistent with past bi-partisan BET practice that has served Greenwich residents and taxpayers well in balancing the demand for services with modest and predictable mill rate increases.
The Pellegrino guidelines, by contrast, constitute a significant departure from past practice. And even more radical than the guidelines themselves is the notion that its acceptable to push something through, ignoring the minority viewpoint and relying only on raw political power.
The Pellegrino guidelines are likely to pass Monday with the tie breaking vote of BET Chairman Mike Mason. But without bi-partisan support, these guidelines will lack the credibility they’ve had in the past.
Indeed, Peter Tesei, our Republican first selectman, and the Board of Education are already working on the town and education budgets irrespective of these guidelines. Tesei, going back to July, well before the the Budget Committee deliberations, has on his own initiative been doing pretty much what the Democrats are now proposing. He’s asked for town departments to provide him with different budget scenarios assuming different mill rate increases.
The BET Republicans may win this skirmish in what looks like a rough upcoming battle over the 2014 budget. But in the long run we all lose. The budget guidelines no longer have credibility. The BET is undermined as a respected institution. Our citizens’ quality of life is threatened.
Maybe there will be a Monday night epiphany. Maybe it will dawn upon some BET Republicans – maybe even one for that seventh vote – that they have nothing to lose by adopting the sound recommendations the BET Democrats have put forth, that include a look at the Pellegrino target. They have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Oh well. At least there’s always hope.