Greenwich is facing its own fiscal cliff

Greenwich needs to tax the rich.

There, I said it. Actually, I typed it – on my MacBook Air.

More on that later, but first, some background:

Hurricane Sandy diverted attention from a saga unfolding in Greenwich which is stormy and out of character with the buttoned-down management of this seaside burg with its hedge funds and parts of town so vast and wealthy they have names like “Back Country” and “Mid Country.” The saga is the tale of conflicting economic forces which will define Greenwich for many years to come. Whether it will successfully retain its fundamental character as an enclave of unparalleled quality of life enjoyed by its residents, or go down the path of inexorable declines in town services, Greenwich is at an important tipping point.

The conflicting forces are the shared expectations of a populace with enormous diversity of wealth and the long-held fiscal constraints and policies which simply are no longer relevant, nor practical, given the state of play and the consequences of the Great Recession.

The stress of this conflict is evident by the frequent departure from common decorum coming from our elected officials unseen in many years – at least in the 12 years I’ve lived here. Gone are the platitudes, the false unity and the annual rituals of fiscal comity. Open enmity, and outright character denigration, is the new normal – from Democrats no longer willing to play the role of obsequious social wannabes, to frequent fissures in the ruling Republicans’ own leadership ranks.

The Republican first selectman tells the Republican BET chair to watch his tone. Oh, and he puts it in writing for all to read. The BET chair singularly drives a fiscal agenda which could eliminate 100 town employees from the public payroll if you believe the Democrats. We force our superintendent to come begging for money just to keep his schools from hemorrhaging, as scores decline and facilities decay, all the while facing the legal challenges of a racially unbalanced system as the western part of Greenwich turns browner, juxtaposed by the residents of East Egg. And, there is the side show of yet another looming fight for control of the school board.

In other words, Greenwich is becoming more like other Connecticut cities where bad behavior is commonplace. Greenwich is becoming like Bridgeport.

Yikes! How do we get out of this mess?

Simple. Tax the rich more. Impose a surtax on top of the mill rate for all houses in Greenwich assessed at $1 million or more.

BET chair Joseph Pellegrino said, “”I’m going to fight for that 30 percent of households that don’t make the astronomical numbers other people in town do.” I have complete sympathy for his views. I think his goals are laudable. Oh, and he sounds a bit like YOU KNOW WHO (Hint: rhymes with OSAMA).

The surtax obviously would have to pass the legal smell test. But barring that, it brings many benefits. It would further cement the Republican voting bloc in Greenwich which is the working class residents. They will show their appreciation by continuing to support local GOP candidates. The professional class of Greenwich – people like me who get on the train every day to work in Manhattan – do not vote in big numbers in off-year municipal elections. There will be no backlash among this class. Then there is the super wealthy for whom this discussion is largely irrelevant. The thing about local taxes – as opposed to our federal income tax – is that every dollar can be felt in our daily lives, from the annual leaf pickup, to the care and maintenance of our parks, to the housing and other services we provide the elderly.

The current budget debate – like the recent general election for the country – may be the most important one in recent Greenwich history. Take a look at the mounds of debris strewn around town. Sandy disrupted the annual leaf pickup schedule by almost three weeks. The new schedule calls for pickups to begin after Dec. 3 and then there will only be one pickup instead of two. And if you think our parks look raggedy now, wait until another 100 town employees get laid off. And who knows what the long-term effect fiscal austerity will be on essential services such as emergency response, police and fire.

There is no need to panic nor to hyper-ventilate. Greenwich has the resources to protect its quality of life without stretching the working class. We just need to act boldly. Carpe Diem.

Lincoln Millstein