Alert “06880” reader and frequent commenter Bart Shuldman writes:
I watched the September 2 video of the Board of Finance meeting, and was surprised to learn Westport just finished the fiscal year with a $4 million surplus — even though 2 months ago the decision was made to raise taxes.
From what I listened to, the revenue in Westport came in a bit higher but costs were much lower. One cost center, Public Works came in over $600,000 lower in costs which had to be known, yet the finance director in Westport did not project that (and other lower costs) just 2 months back.
When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.
How could the finance director not know this while a discussion as going on about increasing taxes? If the Board of Finance knew that we would end the year with a big surplus (over 2% of the budget), would we have avoided a tax increase? I am told: yes.
Not only did the costs come in much lower, the Board of Education returned $180,000 back to the town. I guess the constant request of needing more money for our school system was not needed last year.
These tax increases hurt our senior citizens the most. With low interest rates and low returns in the stock market, anyone who is retired has a difficult time if their costs increase. Now these residents face increased taxes in Westport when it should have been avoided.
The good news is our first selectman and Board of Finance have done a great job controlling costs. They clearly deserve our thanks. But now it’s time to get a functioning finance department in Westport that can forecast better, especially with just 2 months to go. Not being able to provide the necessary information to our Board of Finance regarding our financial results as we get close to the end of the fiscal year is very concerning, and resulted in an unnecessary tax increase.
Town finance director Gary Conrad replies:
In May we projected a conservative $2.5 million surplus. Because of this, the Board of Finance set the mill rate using $4.1 million dollars of fund balance to reduce the tax increase. So in effect we used the whole $4.0 million surplus to reduce taxes while the mill rate increase was only .84%. Department of Public Works savings were achieved due to lower solid waste costs and the deferral of building maintenance, tree maintenance and parks and recreation property maintenance.
2nd Selectman Avi Kaner — a former chair and 8-year member of the Board of Finance — also responds:
Westport’s annual budget stands at over $200 million. Our town department heads and the Board of Finance work diligently to control our expenses and report to the public on a monthly basis.
Because the Board of Finance did not meet in August, the resulting surplus was discussed in September. The amount of the surplus caught the members by surprise given the values shown in July.
The good news is that any budget surplus enters into the town’s general reserves and is available to defray any tax increase. The Board of Finance has been pegging the town’s reserves at a conservative 11%, aggressively paying down long term debt, fully funding our pension obligations, and maintaining our AAA rating.
When the Board of Finance sets the mil rate again in about 8 months, the surplus will be used to lower the change in mil rate once again for that fiscal year. We will work with the finance department to more accurately forecast revenues and expenses on a monthly basis.