Brian Stern On Spending: “Don’t Tap The Brakes. But Be Cautious.”

The good news: Westport is in excellent financial shape.

The bad news: We’ve got some big capital expenses coming up. At least one new elementary school; Longshore renovation; a new firehouse or two — those are some big-ticket items.

The bottom-line news: It’s time to think about them.

Brian Stern

At least one Westporter is. Brian Stern has served on the Board of Finance since 2009, and is a former chair. He earned a Harvard MBA and spent 35 years with Xerox, beginning as a finance director and progressing to president of 4 divisions. After retiring in 2007 he invested in and managed 2 high-tech start-up companies.

The other day, we chatted about town finances.

Thanks to continued good governance and a strong tax  base, he said, our financials are “very strong. Most towns would love to have the grand list increases we’ve had.” They’re consistently 1 to 2.5%; next year’s is 2.2%.

The tax levy is $190 million on property. That’s one positive effect of teardowns, Stern says: Demolishing a house that’s $800,000 on the grand list, and replacing it with a $6 million one, enables us to keep the same mill rate year after year.

New apartment buildings on the Post Road help. So will converting the former Save the Children non-profit on Wilton Road to high-priced condos.

“Our reserves have never been higher,” Stern notes. “We can withstand any imaginable fiscal crisis.” And our AAA bond rating won’t change.

“All signs are good,” he reiterates. “We are, and will be, a fundamentally attractive town.”

The Bankside Condos on Wilton Road — seen here in an artist’s rendering — will add to Westport’s grand list.

But Stern repeats the warning bells he sounded at the May 11 Board of Finance meeting.

The town’s 5-year capital plan includes many important and “justifiable, well thought out” projects. Yet taken together, he says, they’ll run up a “massive bill, unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Through no one’s fault, he foresees “dramatically increased spending” for the town and Board of Education budgets. Together with national trends like increasing interest rates — from below 2%, to 4% — and rising inflation, the combination will be costly.

Stern says that the town’s current debt is $105 million. Bond costs have been in the @% range; the most recent came in at 3.4%.

Our current debt service of $11.5 million a year is about 5.2% of the total operating budget. That works out to about $3,870 per Westport man, woman and child.

Looking ahead to projects like a new Long Lots Elementary School ($50 million to  $70 million), and possibly a new Coleytown El; other school projects like a roof at Staples high; a $40 million firehouse; $20 million for much-needed Longshore improvements; bridges; the $12 million downtown master plan — and factoring in state grants of about 11% — Stern sees our total debt increasing from $105 million to $350-$375 million, over 10 years.

Long Lots Elementary School is nearly 70 years old. It is need of replacement or renovation. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

Debt service will increase proportionately, from $11.5 million to $40 million. Over a decade or so, per capita debt will rise from $3,870 to $13,500.

“The decision to build is much easier than the decision to finance,” he notes. “Whatever we decide will be with us for 25 years.”

And what happens if we get a “surprise,” as we did with the sudden need to rebuild Coleytown Middle School a few years ago? “Our risk profile would change,” Stern acknowledges.

It would change too if certain projects that are not currently in the capital plan are added in. There are currently “zero dollars,” he says, for things like Baron’s South and affordable housing.

This is not the first time Westport has faced several big projects at once, however. Stern points to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when construction of the new Staples High and Bedford Middle School, plus the conversion Saugatuck El, among others — rocketed our debt from $57 million to $175 million.

The new Staples High School was completed in 2005. It is a modern building that works well in the 21st century.

People like Steve Halstead and Dan Kail — town leaders who lived through those projects, and their financing — are still around, Stern says. “We should talk to them, and ask about their experiences. Would they have done anything differently? There’s not much that’s free today, but their advice would be.”

Stern notes too, “When we build a school, we get something in return. There was a benefit from those new buildings. These are important investments in our community.”

Of course, they are investments by one generation that subsidize another. Of course too, that’s always the case.

“Someone paid for us,” Stern says. “We have to pay it forward.”

Though some of the projects may slip to a later date, Stern does not view the capital plan as a wish list. “We need these,” he says. Still, he asks, are they all needed at the funding level requested? For example, he wonders, can Long Lots be renovated for less than it would cost to construct an entirely new school? Perhaps we can do with a $25 million firehouse, rather than one costing $40 million.

He urges a “creative” look at spending. Greenwich, for example, pays down its debt faster than the traditional 25 years. Of course, that increases taxes in the short term.

Perhaps the town could consider selling some assets, Stern says. He points to a portion of Longshore near the river that is now “brambles, weeds and a parking lot.” It could fetch $5-$10 million, he thinks.

Riverfront property at Longshore is now used as a parking lot. In the early days of COVID, teenagers socialized there in a socially distant way. (Photo/Kimberly Paris)

Stern is not providing any answers. He just wants Westporters to “understand consequences, and make decisions with spending and financing in mind.”

He urges town officials to “keep their heads up and their eyes open — not stick them in the sand.”

Despite the warning signs, he says, “we’ve been through this before. We have a great high school and middle schools, and amenities. This is why I live here.

“We’ve decided, as a community, that we will pay for these things. People don’t always like to talk about the price of things.

“I’m not telling them to tap the brakes. But I am saying: Be cautious.’

7 responses to “Brian Stern On Spending: “Don’t Tap The Brakes. But Be Cautious.”

  1. Joey Kaempfer

    I have read this post with great interest having recently built a house here in Westport after being away many years (Staples 1965).

    While I have been involved in property and municipal finance for decades, I wanted to caution Mr. Stern on only one thing. I have never, in tens and tens of $ billions of transactions across 12 countries had too little land.

    I hope he and our Town consider the serious implications of selling off any Town property to raise funds- I fear this is a potentially terrible answer to a temporary financial problem.

  2. Melissa Ceriale

    I found this to be a thoughtful article on town needs. And I agree with paying it forward. Good schools, good police and fire protection are integral to this community. But i am surprised at no mention of the environmental impact as it relates to tearing down small houses and over-building on parcels.

    Only a small portion of Westport is on city sewer. We have watched the water table rise by 11” in this past decade alone with the loss of mature trees and less impervious surfaces. The water table rise is severely threatening our current mature trees. Roots sitting in water does not portend well for the security and safety of these trees in storms and wind.

    This is an environmental consequence and by-product of keeping the mill rates steady. No one likes the idea of raising property taxes. But I fear that the environmental trade for these capital expenditure projects is not being considered for the long-term impact. Tearing down an 800K house for a 6M house sounds like a good idea. And many of those houses could, indeed, be torn down. But there is no long-term view of the cost to us all on our daily and long-term health and the impact to the individual homeowners and the water issues we are all facing.

    This is a trade-off that is changing the ethos of Westport CT. The sizes of these homes on these lots is overshadowing the infrastructure of this community. Just look at the size and height of your new neighbor’s home next door.

  3. Yulee Aronson

    I worked on the Staples Building committee in the early 2000’s and am happy to help again. Please share my contact information with Ben.

  4. Sheri Gordon

    Thank you Dan for shining a light on these upcoming capital expenditures being proposed. All of us on the Board of Finance encourage taxpayers to contact us to share their thoughts on these projects and the resulting financial impacts.

  5. Cathryn Morrison

    Please consider the environmental impact of Mr. Stern’s suggestions. It already appears that the results of the “big builders” is exacerbating the flooding issues already occurring in town. What he suggests appears to be very short sited for the health, safety and quality of life in our community.

  6. That was one of the clearest most non-political or judgmental individuals and articles I have EVER read. If most politicians could speak with such clarity balance and open-mindedness, wouldn’t we all be better served? The possibly sellable Long Shore property could possibly be built for rental property by the town. I unprofessionally think that might be an income benefit in the either short or long term – I’m good at math.

  7. Clark Thiemann

    It’s also interesting the juxtaposition of the points Mr. Stern makes with the survey I received today from the town on affordable housing. As Mr. Stern notes, the replacement of smaller houses with larger ones has kept our taxes lower than they otherwise would have been. As we think of adding more affordable housing in town (which can be a worthy mission as well as it being the law), it will be interesting to see how this could impact the mill rate.