GREENWICH — In a fight to lead the Board of Estimate and Taxation, Democratic candidates promised adequate funding for school projects and a new long-range capital plan, while Republicans guaranteed low debt and taxes under their continued leadership.
In BET elections, the party whose candidates receive the most votes can appoint a chair, who has the authority to cast tie-breaking votes within the 12-member board. Republicans, who secured 54 percent of total votes in the 2021 election, currently hold board leadership.
And this year, the six Democratic and six Republican candidates have each formed united fronts to ensure their respective party has final say on split votes.
While each of the 12 candidates were separately sent questions about their priorities and positions by CT Examiner, the candidates instead consolidated their responses into two joint statements, split by party.
Asked how their current majority on the board has impacted the town, the Republican candidates — incumbents Leslie Tarkington, Nisha Arora, Harry Fisher and Karen Fassuliotis, and newcomers Lucia Jansen and David Alfano — said Greenwich has long maintained an advantage compared to other municipalities under GOP leadership.
“Republicans have held the chairmanship of the BET for all but two years in over ninety years,” they wrote. “We are proud of our stewardship that has resulted in superior financial management versus Democrat led municipalities in Connecticut, and the state itself.”
The current Republican-led BET locked this year’s mill rate at 11.393, which is lower than nearby municipalities like Darien, Norwalk and Stamford. Republicans said that, because they have kept taxes low, they’ve been able to meet town needs and improve Greenwich schools and public facilities.
But Democratic candidates — incumbents Leslie Moriaty, Stephen Selbst and David Weisbrod, and newcomers Elliot Alchek, Matt DesChamps and Scott Kalb — argued that recent debate over school construction projects prove that Republicans have “simply failed” to fund town needs.
“The BET Republicans have used their tie-breaking power to impose budgets that reflect their fiscal priorities, but not the will of the community,” Democrats said. “BET Republicans have set unrealistic, and sometimes arbitrary, limits on project costs.”
School project funding
While voting on this year’s budget, Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree on funding for renovations to Greenwich Public Schools, which are out of compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards as they lack key infrastructure like elevators and ramps.
Democratic members wanted to approve almost $35 million to completely renovate Old Greenwich School in April, but the Republican-led board instead decided to approve $1,003,000 to construct an elevator, ramps and renovate the bathrooms in the school. Earlier this month, the BET again voted to reject a $39 million request for Old Greenwich School renovations.
Last week, the two BET Republican members not seeking reelection crossed party lines and voted to approve a $42 million appropriation to rebuild Central Middle School, which would bring the school into compliance with ADA standards. Tarkington, Arora and Fisher abstained, and Fassuliotis was the sole member in opposition.
Both parties told CT Examiner it is ultimately up to the school board to recommend a plan for the outstanding renovations, but Democrats urged the importance of quickly bringing Greenwich schools into compliance with ADA standards.
“It is a poor reflection on the town that more than 30 years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Greenwich Public Schools are not fully compliant,” Democrats said.
Democrats said the current BET has racked up a “substantial backlog” of capital projects as they focus only on short-term fixes to limit tax increases. Under Democratic control, they said, the board would develop a long-range capital plan which addresses all of the town’s needs moving forward, not just priority projects.
As it stands, the town has allocated about $400 million for school and infrastructure projects under its five-year capital plan, but Democrats said Greenwich could afford to spend additional money for school projects and issue longer-term debt with no “meaningful impact” by taking advantage of its AAA credit rating.
“The other Connecticut municipalities with AAA bond ratings all rely on longer-term debt to finance their capital needs. And it is widely accepted for both corporate and municipal finance to finance long-term assets with debt that matches the anticipated life of the capital asset,” Democrats said. “So, while it would be a change in practice for Greenwich to issue longer-term municipal debt, it can afford to do so.”
While Greenwich residents may not immediately see the impact of longer-term debt, Republicans argued that increased bonding will inevitably increase taxes.
“Republicans have had a responsible strategy to fund major capital projects over an eight-year time frame. That smooths the impact on taxpayers while not burdening future generations,” Republicans said. “Democrats want to bring their debt and spending policies that have failed in many locals, including at the state and federal levels, to Greenwich.”
Increasing the capital budget as Democrats proposed would also require Greenwich to hire more employees, Republicans argued, because the town is currently at its capacity to manage projects.
“That all would result in much higher taxes,” Republicans said.