Greenwich BET cuts funding for the Julian Curtiss project and cuts new firefighter positions

The council cut the $1.5 million the school board had requested to renovate and expand the school, a project with strong community support. In the party line vote, all Republicans in BET supported the cut and all Democrats opposed, with Board Chairman Dan Ozizmir using his deciding vote on the GOP side.

“I know there’s disappointment out there,” said BET Republican member Michael Basham. “I will ask you to understand the difficult situation we find ourselves in.”

The BET met at 9 a.m. Tuesday to discuss all aspects of the proposed $464 million municipal budget for 2022-23. The meeting lasted all day and extended into the evening. A final vote will take place on the budget after all motions on any cuts, reductions or conditions on the City’s spending plan have been heard.

The district’s focus has shifted to the construction of a new Central Middle School and the need to fund $1.5 million for architectural and engineering work on improvements at Old Greenwich School, said Ozizmir.

“The priority is Central Middle School,” he said. “I think we all know that. This should have been the priority years ago, but now it is. I think it’s an incredible step forward for this city, for the school system, for our students.

Additionally, with school district enrollment declining, BET Republicans questioned the need to extend Julian Curtiss.

But the BET approved some improvements for the school, including $915,503 for HVAC improvements as part of an overall package for the city’s public schools and $1.1 million for ADA accessibility improvements, including an elevator.

This came over objections from the BET Democratic caucus, which said the piecemeal approach would not meet the school’s needs and would cost more. BET Democrat Miriam Kreuzer said the approved numbers were “arbitrary” and other caucus members said there was not enough information to vote on.

Leslie Moriarty, the Democratic caucus leader, said she understands the priority of work at Central and Old Greenwich. But she said approving the full allowance for Julian Curtiss would allow for better planning.

“We’re starting down a path that will ultimately cost the city more money and won’t address any of the educational upgrades that we would really like for this building,” Moriarty said.

Nisha Arora, a Republican BET member who has offered to allocate funds separately for Julian Curtiss’s HVAC work, said funding has been deferred several times in the past. With no consensus on the way forward for the project, splitting the parties was a good idea, she said.

“I think we tied HVAC and ADA, these very important projects, to the whole rebuilding of the ‘Julian Curtiss School,’” Arora said. “It was hit or miss. And I think, in a way, that was extremely unfair to the students, the community, and the parents of Julian Curtiss.

New cut firefighters

Also on Tuesday, BET voted to cut the stipend for new firefighters, part of a multi-year plan to bolster firefighter personnel. This is in anticipation of the addition of career firefighters to an expanded Round Hill fire station in the backcountry.

By a 7-6 vote, with all Republicans voting yes and Ozizmir using his deciding vote, BET cut $316,995 earmarked for the hiring of four new firefighters. BET Republicans said they wanted to know more about the integration of volunteer firefighters and a comprehensive plan to reduce emergency response times across the city.

Democrats objected, saying the new firefighters were key to meeting recommendations from the independent Matrix study on improving the city’s fire coverage.

“This is a vote against the fire station in the northwest, let’s be very clear,” said BET member David Weisbrod, a Democrat. “The Matrix conclusion was that you need a Round Hill fire station and we need staff for a Round Hill fire station. The first breeder, responding to the Matrix study, implemented a progressive response by making a request for these firefighters.

Republicans disagreed, saying it was not a vote against a backcountry fire station.

“This statement is absurd. This is not a vote against a northwest fire station at all,” said BET member Karen Fassuliotis, a Republican. “There needs to be a city-wide discussion about response times first. … The fire department needs to start implementing Matrix’s recommendations. There is so much work to do in our fire department before we even consider hiring additional staff.

BET also cut $132,000 allocated to benefits for new firefighter positions.

Bumpouts, pedestrian safety

The BET approved the allocation of $2.8 million for improvements at the intersections of Greenwich Avenue with Arch Street and Havemeyer Place. Bumps similar to those installed last year on Elm Street are part of the controversial project.

BET member Leslie Tarkington had offered to postpone the project for a year so that traffic and parking studies could be carried out by the Planning and Zoning Commission. But his motion failed by a bipartisan vote, with Republicans William Drake and Michael Basham joining BET’s six Democrats in voting against delaying the bill.

While some residents have pushed back on the job cuts, the project has received support from First Councilor Fred Camillo of the Department of Public Works and Alan Gunzburg, chairman of the First Councilor’s Disability Advisory Committee, as a way to improve accessibility and security.

“Greenwich Avenue is the face of this city. He deserves your tender and loving care. I’ve lived in this town long enough to remember when Greenwich Avenue was a two-way street,” Drake said. “We must preserve, improve and beautify Greenwich Avenue. This is our front door. We should keep it nice.

He said the money was already available. “You paid for this. The question is whether your money is going to be used in New Britain or Danbury or Greenwich Avenue,” Drake said.

Other projects moving forward in the budget include a $300,000 allocation for traffic and safety improvements in Byram; $750,000 for a sidewalk on Shore Road in Old Greenwich; and $500,000 for Glenville neighborhood improvements.

The BET approved the imposition of a condition on the Glenville improvements, requiring that $250,000 be raised privately before the city would spend $250,000 on the project.

Temporary ice rink

BET added a line item to the budget, on the condition that it eventually be privately funded, with $45,000 authorized to find a location for a temporary rink.

According to the plan, a new municipal ice rink would be built on the footprint of the Dorothy Hamill ice rink in Byram. The city is now looking for a location for a temporary rink that would be used for two winter months while the new rink is being built.

Drake, who also chairs the rink users committee for city design and planning, introduced the motion to add the $45,000 allocation to the budget. Moriarty successfully placed the condition on the funds, making it conditional on an undertaking that it will be repaid to the city with private funds raised.

“We wouldn’t want the outcome to be after 50 years of the town having an ice rink to go two or three years without any facilities with no facilities for Greenwich residents to skate,” Drake said. “This is not a Republican or Democratic affair. The idea is that we are caught up in a technicality.

Without a site for a temporary rink, he said, work cannot begin on the new permanent rink.

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