Tag Archives: Board of Finance

“06880” Persona Interview: Board Of Finance Candidate Nancie Dupier

“06880” continues our series of “Persona” video interviews with candidates for local office. Rob Simmelkjaer produces these, as part of his new venture that helps users create casual, interesting conversational videos.

Today’s interview is with Democratic Board of Finance candidate Nancie Dupier. Click below:

To see all the Persona candidate interviews — and others — click here.

Introducing “06880”‘s Persona Of The Week

Earlier this year Rob Simmelkjaer — who ran for 2nd Selectman in 2017 — left his corporate gig with NBC Sports and News to pursue a personal mission.

His goal: Develop a multimedia platform giving people the tools to create and discover great interviews and conversations. His company is called Persona.

Rob Simmelkjaer

Though national in scope, its rollout begins locally this month, with a custom interview service. Today, Rob and I are excited to announce a collaboration: the “06880 Persona of the Week.”

Each week, Rob or a Persona colleague will interview an interesting member of the community. Topics and interview subjects will be varied and unlimited, from local movers and shakers to those doing amazing things well beyond our borders.

Each interview will give “06880” readers a chance to meet a neighbor, and see the amazing things that happen when people sit down to chat.

With elections looming, we decided to start with a sprint.

Between now and Election Day we’ll post interviews with each of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Boards of Education and Finance. These non-partisan interviews will give voters a chance to get to know the candidates, and encourage Westporters to vote.

We start with the Democratic candidate for re-election to the Board of Finance, Sheri Gordon. Tomorrow: Republican Board of Education candidate Vik Muktavaram.

More candidate videos will follow, in the coming days. After the election, this feature will become an actual “Persona of the Week.”

Board Of Finance: “Education Budget Can Be Slowed Without Pain And Suffering”

Six of the 7 Board of Finance have written an open letter to Westporters. They say:

Westport has worked hard to prudently manage its finances and tax base. All branches of our town government, many elected officials and volunteers, have worked collaboratively, on behalf of all residents, to ensure we have a high quality of life at a cost all residents and businesses can afford.  Sadly, maintaining this balance will be more difficult in the future.

Today we are faced with grim economic news from the State of Connecticut. This is not a one-off problem and it will continue for years to come. Because of our state government’s inability to manage their budget and control spending, resulting in a projected deficit of over $1.5 billion next year alone, Westport finds itself in a difficult position. Instead of tackling a state government that has grown too large and too expensive for the residents, the state is largely trying to solve its budget problems by shifting costs to towns.

First, the state is decreasing or totally eliminating payments it has made to Westport for either education or other services, which equals $3 million to $4 million in 2018 alone. We assume this revenue from the state, which directly supplemented our operating budgets, is permanently gone.

Second, the state is discussing transferring ongoing costs from the state budget to the town budget, in the form of teacher pension costs. If it does not come in the form of teacher pension costs, we still believe transferred costs will come to us in another form.

The total impact in 2018 will be in the $8 million range (based on the proposals currently on the table). Rather than pass these costs directly on to Westport taxpayers with a big tax increase, approximately $800 per household, the Board of Finance asked our town to come together as a community to find ways to slow the growth of operational costs.

The Police, Fire Department, EMS, Public Works, Parks and Rec, Library and Town Hall staff did what they could, and reduced their initial operating budget submissions by 1.5%. We also asked the Board of Education to trim its submission by 1.5% or $1.7 million. This actually results in an increase of 1%, or $1 million over the prior year education budget.

Now it is time for the Board of Education to join with the Westport community to do its part, as they have before. This is not the time for pitting parents against the rest of the community. We must all do what we can to try to provide the best services to everyone in Westport at the most reasonable cost.

As we have learned in the past, it is indeed possible to slow the growth in the education budget without significant pain and suffering. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Recession crisis, the school system proposed an extremely responsive budget, and even gave back a sizable year-end surplus, with minimal impacts to our children.

We ask the Westport school administration, Board of Education, PTA, teachers and parents to come together collaboratively to try to discern what areas of the education budget can be trimmed without impacting our children’s futures.  We know that in order to continually be a leading school district that we must continue to innovate.  That means evolving and becoming better consumers at every level.

This is not a circumstance of Westport’s making. None of us can be satisfied with the decades of financial mismanagement in Hartford. The unfortunate reality is that successful communities such as Westport are being forced to shoulder the burden of Hartford’s failures.

Let’s take our passion regarding our schools to the state. All Westport citizens should be telling our representatives in Hartford — Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle, Jonathan Steinberg and Tony Hwang — that Westport will not stand for being the state piggy bank. This is where we should raise our voices and be heard.

Lee Caney
Sheri Gordon
Michael Rea
Brian Stern
Jennifer Tooker
Jim Westphal

Schools Superintendent Outlines Budget Cut Consequences

Last week, the Board of Finance voted to cut the education budget by $1.7 million. Today, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer announced possible reductions, if that cut is sustained.

Other reductions may also be added to the list. Right now, it includes:

  • Implementing “pay for play” at Staples High School
  • Eliminating freshman sports at Staples
  • Eliminating individual music lessons in grades 4 – 8
  • Reducing club and after-school offerings at the middle and high schools
  • Reducing the Workshop Program
  • Eliminating bus monitors
  • Deferring yearly technology purchases
  • Eliminating all 4 grade level assistants at Staples (the previous proposal eliminated 2)
  • Eliminating library paraprofessionals
  • Moving to a “double 3 tiers” of elementary busing, causing a 3:45 pm dismissal at either Long Lots, Coleytown Elementary or Greens Farms.

Palmer noted that according to union contracts, salary and benefits require at least a 3+% budget increase each year.

“The structure of education funding in Connecticut is grounded in binding arbitration for our union contracts,” she said.

“It is impossible to hold costs constant for education when there are built-in systemic accelerators which we do not control.  A $1.7 million cut forces severe reductions, impacting the quality of our district.”

The Board of Finance meets on April 5 at Town Hall (8 p.m., Rooms 201/201A). At that time, they may consider restoration of funds cut at their previous meeting.

The Board of Ed will discuss these issues at its own meeting this Monday (March 27, 7:30 p.m., Staples cafeteria). The meeting will be televised on Channel 78.

Mike Rea Explores A First Selectman Run

Growing up on Evergreen Avenue, Mike Rea attended almost-in-his-back yard Bedford Elementary School.

His alma mater now serves as Town Hall. And Rea is trying to figure out whether he wants to work there full time.

He’s done many things since graduating from Staples High School in 1970. Rea helped found Festival Italiano, was a Parks and Recreation Commission chair, headed the Bedford Middle School building project, spent 12 years on the RTM, and now serves as vice chair of the Board of Finance.

He’s formed a committee to explore a run for first selectman. If he enters the race, he’ll challenge incumbent and fellow Republican Jim Marpe.

“For years, people have asked me to run,” Rea says. “I owe it to myself to see if the interest is out there now.”

Mike Rea (left) after his first Board of Finance victory. On the right is current 2nd selectman Avi Kaner.

A Bronx native who came to Westport at age 4, Rea has long been active in town. Soon after his Staples graduation, he opened Mr. Sandwich — a popular lunchtime restaurant — on Bay Street.

He attended Norwalk Community College at night. He married Carla, spent a brief time in real estate, and for the past 34 years has worked for Gen Re. He’s currently vice president of corporate services and global real estate.

His first political activism came before he was a teenager — for the Democrats. “Thelma Ezzes and Ruth Soloway got me to sell tickets for a JFK memorial concert,” he recalls. “Thelma always said I slipped through Democratic fingers.”

He later joined the Young Republicans, and became state national committeeman. He chaired the Republican Town Committee, and was a 2-time John McCain delegate at national conventions.

Mike Rea at the 1978 Republican state convention. In the background is longtime political leader Ed Capasse.

When Rea’s sons Michael and Alex were young, an earthquake devastated Italy. Rea was part of a Westport group that raised $250,000 to help, then brought 21 youngsters and their mayor from a small town to Westport.

The Sons of Italy rose from that group. They sponsored the Italian Festival, a summertime Saugatuck staple for over 25 years.

Mike Rea (left) with the Sons of Italy group, at an early Festival Italiano.

When his boys played sports, Rea got involved in a project to build more athletic fields. First Selectman Doug Wood appointed him to the Parks and Recreation Commission. Wood’s successor Joe Arcudi named Rea chair.

Under his direction, Parks and Rec helped develop Wakeman Park, renovated Ned Dimes Marina and brought a skating rink to Longshore.

Gene Cederbaum — a Democratic Board of Education member — recruited Rea to head up the Bedford Middle School building project. Rea and his group — including “fantastic volunteers” like Russ Blair, Howard Lathrop and Joe Renzulli — “brought new construction techniques and accounting principles, and combined them with state and local educational specs and budgets,” to produce a handsome school on a former Nike missile base.

Rea is proud that another Democrat — Wally Meyer — called him “Mr. On Time and Under Budget.”

In his 6 terms on the RTM, Rea chaired the Finance and Environmental Committees, and served on the Ethics Committee. “I really enjoyed the give-and-take from ‘the citizens’ podium,'” he says.

Mike and Carla Rea (2nd and 3rd from right), with their children and granddaughter.

He left the RTM to run for Board of Finance. Rea was elected twice, in 2011 and 2015, when he was the top Republican vote-getter in town.

So why might he challenge a fellow party member for the top spot?

“Why not?” he replies. “I wouldn’t run against Jim. I’d be running for Westport, and myself.”

His exploratory committee will examine whether issues like the condition of the beach, and finance and planning, are areas he could address.

“I’m a business guy, a facilitator, a project manager,” Rea says. “That’s my wheelhouse. It’s not a question of bad management now. It’s a question of, could I do better? When you commit large sums of expenditures to education, parks facilities and public works, you have to make sure you’re doing it right.”

Rea calls Marpe “a very capable, nice, down-to-earth guy. I really like him. He’s not doing the job wrong. I just think with my years in public service, and my skill set that augments the first selectman’s job, I might do better.”

Rea also says he’s friendly with Jonathan Steinberg, the Democratic state representative who is exploring his own run for first selectman.

Rea concludes, “I like people. I love Westport. I think I’d be good for the town. This is just the first step on a journey.”

That journey started decades ago at Bedford Elementary School on Myrtle Avenue. It may wind its way back there, in November.

(Tomorrow: Jim Marpe talks about his campaign for re-election.)

Bart Shuldman: Town Leaders’ Hard Work Controls Costs

Wherever they were last week, Westporters appreciated hearing that our mill rate will actually fall in the coming fiscal year.

Bart Shuldman was in China. On his flight home, he reflected on the news:

Westport taxpayers received good news regarding the mill rate for fiscal year 2016-2017. The Board of Finance approved a 6.8% decrease from the previous year, based on the growth of the Grand List and the good work by Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and the Board of Finance at controlling costs for the coming year.

In addition, Westport taxpayers will also pay less property tax on their cars. We should all thank Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance for their diligent work, as Westport is not like any other town in Connecticut. Many, if not all surrounding towns are experiencing either small or large mill rate increases.

Westport's 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westport’s 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westporters also learned additional good news: The town will continue to pay down debt, and also continue to pay the Actuarial Required Contribution for the town employee pension plan. I do not think most people know how important this piece of the news is to all of us.

Some background: Many years ago the town implemented 2 major employee benefit programs, a defined pension plan and something called OPEB (Other Post Employee Benefits). In addition, past town leaders borrowed a lot of money and accumulated a large amount of debt.

In 2011, after a very deep recession, Westport’s debt stood at over $156 million. Our pension liability was over $186 million, and the OPEB liability was more than $84 million.

Making matters worse, for years before 2011 Westport was not funding the Actuarial Required Contribution necessary to meet the pension obligations promised to town employees. Then the stock market went through the 2009 recession, causing pension assets to decline. Westport taxpayers were on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is NOT a photo of Westport's pension fund.

This is NOT a photo of Westport’s pension fund.

Fast forward to today. With the good work of Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance, the town is in much better financial shape.  While the pension obligation has grown to over $270 million, the pension is 85% funded.

As noted above, Westport is now paying the total Actuarial Required Contribution and also making up for past underpayments. Meanwhile, the town’s debt is down to $115 million.

What might surprise many residents is that debt service, employee pension and OPEB obligations are an enormous percentage of the budget. Principal and interest cost on the town’s debt is over $14 million. Pensions cost the town over $16 million, and it appears OPEB costs over $10 million each year. Therefore, almost 20% of the town’s budget goes to decisions made many years ago, and does not fund current town needs and potential projects.

Westport residents should thank our current town leaders for doing what is needed to control costs and manage the town’s obligations.

In Case You Base Your Vote On More Than Road Signs…

Opinions are like you-know-whats: Everyone’s got ’em.

Westporters know exactly what to do about Baron’s South, the education budget, tree-cutting, downtown parking, Compo Beach, affordable housing, bike lanes, and a thousand different topics.

We are not afraid to share our thousands of different views with our elected officials.

When those officials disagree with us, we think it’s their fault. Even if we did not vote in the election that put them in office.

Knowledge is power.

LWV my town my voteIf you’d like to know exactly who you’re voting for next month — besides seeing their names on lawn signs — come to a pair of League of Women Voters-sponsored debates.

Tomorrow (Monday, October 5) focuses on candidates for the Planning & Zoning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and Board of Assessment Appeals.

On Wednesday, October 14, meet Board of Education and Board of Finance hopefuls.

Both sessions are set for Town Hall, at 7 p.m.

But wait! There’s more!

Both days, at 6:15 p.m., voters can meet Representative Town Meeting (RTM) candidates. They’re our unsung civic backbone, with power over everything from final budgets to plastic bags.

Around the world, people continue to die for the right to vote. Here in Westport, you just have to go around the corner.

Baron’s South Committee: A Follow-Up Report

Alert “06880” reader Tom Leyden and his wife Rita have been busy. They attended yesterday morning’s Baron’s South Committee meeting. They were also at the September 21 meeting, and this week’s RTM and Board of Finance sessions. Tom sent along this report:

We’re interested in the prime subject (affordable housing), the utilization of public town owned property, and the process.

I was impressed tremendously by how this committee worked yesterday morning (2 members were absent: Jo Fuchs-Luscombe and Ken Bernhard). There was meeting management, give and take, obvious caring and expertise shown. Many opinions were aired.

Several members were defensive, but restrained in response to how they were characterized in the public sphere. However, this took little time.

Given the result of Wednesday’s Board of Finance meeting, everyone present agreed to staying on the committee to conclusion.

Selectmen Gordon Joseloff and Shelly Kassen offered whatever resources necessary, and open minds. They supported redoing, if that’s the final result.

Janis Collins (BOF) offered insightful suggestions on how to proceed forward. This is too complicated for me to accurately explain, but was well taken by the committee. Many of her points led to the “next steps.”

A point that Paul VanOrden made that I agree with is that the committee came up with a recommendation based on the limitations of the scope of the Request For Proposal for good and well-considered reasons, and should not be forced to change but rather explain why, etc. It’s up to the approval process to accept or reject their recommendation.

John Thompson suggested that there was confusion in the public’s interpretation of the numbers, and that the committee should set out to correct that confusion. Who could disagree with that?

Most of the balance of the meeting was taken determining the intermediate steps towards the already scheduled RTM meeting of October 29. “Sub-meetings” (my words, not theirs) will be scheduled between and among the Board of Finance, RTM, Planning and Zoning and other interested parties (again my words) to insure an effective meeting on the 29th.

Shelly Kassen served in a very effective fashion to guide the committee through the vagaries of the “approval” process. She was very informative to me, a “public” listener. She did not strike me at any time as having anything but the best interests of affordable housing and the town’s fiscal interests at heart.

Part of the Baron’s South property.

Toward the end of the meeting I was asked to comment. I made the following points:

1. The committee was impressive.

2. The committee suffered from a communication problem, meaning that their reasons for choosing the proposal they chose should have been articulated more clearly and effectively quickly, making sure the restrains of the RFP were thoroughly understood by the public.

3. I believed their conclusion was the only one that could be chosen under the RFP.

4.  Whether they liked it or not this was a political process, and the lack of intermediate communication as to what was going on let the public decide any way they wanted what they were up to or not. The public has opinions, good or bad, and with the marvel of modern media, instant and widespread capability will fill the vacuum with “noise.”  The committee should have found a way to provide intermediate communication.

5.  I was happy with the “next steps.”

All in all I witnessed a good, effective committee meeting with a process road forward to achieve the best result for a serious and genuine need for affordable housing with fiscal viability for the town.

Let’s keep our powder dry, and let the process work.

Evan Barr: Save Our Commuter Bus Routes!

Tomorrow (Wednesday, April 11, 8 p.m., Town Hall), the Board of Finance votes on restoration of $113,000 to the $248,000 budget for the Westport Transit District.

Cuts were made last year. Ridership went down. Now, with ridership down, further cuts are proposed.

Westport resident, lawyer and commuter Evan Barr is not pleased. He makes these points:

The per-rider cost of $4527.63 sounds like a lot of money. But public transit is not about profit. It’s a public service that almost always must be significantly subsidized.  It should not have to “pay for itself.”

The town should consider the consequence of eliminating bus service. Some people will have to buy a second car, and pay to park it, operate it, insure it.  Families with only 1 car will have to arrange their schedules around station drop-offs and pick-ups.

A Westport transit bus makes a pickup at Saugatuck station.

Nearly everyone in Westport says they favor green initiatives. This no-brainer opportunity to reduce traffic and air pollution, at a relatively minor cost of $114,000 (out of an overall town budge of $74 million) gets voted down – even though the town plan adopted a few years ago advocates increasing routes and enhancing ridership.

We have relatively inexpensive parking costs at the Saugatuck lot, compared to others in the region, so we encourage people to drive to the station. Maybe, as one former RTM member said, we should increase cost of parking in the Saugatuck lot to subsidize the bus system.

Meanwhile, camaraderie exists among shuttle bus riders. It gives folks who live in the same part of town a chance to talk with their neighbors — which never happens in separate vehicles.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport's commuter buses.

Virtually everyone I spoke to who uses the bus said they would happily pay a higher fare if that would help reduce the deficit and save the system. Most said they would pay twice the current $1.50. Norwalk Transit has apparently been inflexible in refusing to explore this possibility. If necessary, Westport should hire a consultant and find another vendor to provide the service.

After cutbacks — resulting from budget cuts — the one route left (Imperial) is basically useless. Most people would have to drive to the lot to take the bus. Once  in your car, you’re probably inclined to just drive down to the station. Keeping Imperial is of symbolic value only.

If the system goes under, it’s unlikely we can reconstitute another any time soon.  If the budget cut goes through we also walk away from $400,000 in state subsidy. Good luck getting those funds back.

The current system is far from perfect. But it’s far better to tinker with it than to scrap it entirely.

Board Of Ed Chairman Says “Thank You”

Last night, the Board of Finance unanimously approved the Board of Education’s proposed 2012-13 budget.

The figure — praised by Finance members on both sides of the aisle — is $100.2 million. That’s a 2.17% percent increase over the current budget.

Tonight, Board of Education chairman Don O’Day issued this statement:

I want to sincerely thank the school community for their tremendous level of support on Thursday night. If you were unable to make it, trust me when I say that Town Hall was packed. The strong message from kids, teachers, parents, and administrators in attendance was unanimous: Westport’s schools are a priority, and should be funded. Like no other year I can remember, the Avi Kaner-led Board of Finance heartily agreed.

I want to especially thank Janis Collins, who was the first to say that she supported the 2012-13 school budget and would vote to approve it without a reduction. Janis recognized the school administration and the BOE for producing a lean and thoughtful budget. Her sincere recognition was much appreciated after months of hard work and difficult choices by the school administration and the Board of Education.

The Board of Finance approved the BOE’s 2012-13 school budget without cuts. The approval followed a commitment that I made, on behalf of the BOE, to review, with the administration and my BOE colleagues, different ways to lower class sizes without increasing the 2012-13 budget.  We will re-double our efforts to explore that goal for the elementary schools, as well as the middles schools and Staples. Tom Lasersohn deserves recognition for passionately speaking about the benefits of lower class sizes.

The results may not be exactly what everyone wants, but I do know this: Because of the willingness of the Board of Finance and the Board of Education to work together, we are all in a better place for our kids.

Thanks again to all of my fellow Westporters, for your support of our schools.