And while to you that may mean college basketball Madness, a few last ski runs or putting off doing taxes, for a few dozen Westporters it means something else.
It’s budget season.
Departments, offices, boards, commissions, committees and agencies big (Education, Public Works, Police, Fire, Parks & Rec) and small (Transit District, Tree Board) have submitted requests for the next fiscal year.
They’ve spent months preparing numbers. Now they must justify them.
Over the next several weeks, members of the Board of Finance will analyze each budget thoroughly. They go line by line, dollar by dollar. They ask questions, large and small. They’re respectful, but firm.
One look at the 2021 town budget …
Sometimes they vote to accept a budget as submitted. Sometimes they cut. They have never — as far as I know — said to any department head, “Hey, you deserve more!”
Then the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) wades in. They’ve got their own questions, and they’re not shy about asking them.
It’s tough, tedious, mind-numbing work. But someone has to do it. I’m glad it’s not me.
… and another.
I’m not sure anyone has ever thanked our Board of Finance and RTM for the job they do every spring.
It’s part of their job, sure. They knew it was coming, when they ran for office.
But today, “06880” thanks those few dozen men and women for spending all those hours poring over spreadsheets, and all those evenings holding meetings and weighing options.
And the next time you look at your tax bill — especially as you compare it to friends and relatives elsewhere in the tri-state area — you should thank them too.
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.
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.’
In 2008, Gen Re transferred Jen and Mo Tooker from the London office to their Stamford headquarters. The couple hunted for homes throughout Fairfield County.
On a February day, a realtor drove them around the corner to Compo Beach.
It was cold. The marina was empty. But, Tooker said, “We’re done!”
They had not seen any houses here yet. It did not matter. The Tookers soon found one.
Westport has been their home ever since.
Tooker soon became part of her new community. She joined the Conservation Commission; served on the Boards of Education and Finance, and was elected 2nd Selectwoman.
On Monday night at Town Hall, she’ll be sworn in for a new post: 1st Selectwoman. She and running mate Andrea Moore were elected last week to the town’s top 2 spots.
Jen Tooker (left) and Andrea Moore, Westport’s new selectwomen.
Though Tooker’s first attraction to Westport was its water, what’s kept her here are Westporters.
“The people here are fabulous,” she says. “They love living here. They get involved. They make things happen.”
Tooker has done more than her share of that. Knowing that this would be “home” for many years, within weeks of unpacking she sought ways to help.
With professional knowledge at Gen Re of flooding, wetlands and property maps, she was appointed to the Conservation Commission.
In 2011 — urged by people who said her skillset was a good fit for the Board of Education — she ran for, and won, a seat.
Democratic chair Don O’Day and Republican vice chair Jim Marpe led a “rock solid, bipartisan” board, Tooker says.
Two years later, she was asked to run for the Board of Finance. She retired from Gen Re, to devote time to public service and raising 3 children.
Jen Tooker, during the 2017 campaign.
In 2017, when Avi Kaner decided not to run for a second term as 2nd selectman, Marpe asked her to join him. She had a front run seat for all that the job entails — all the departmental collaboration, public meetings, budget deliberations, decision-making on issues like masks, weather-related disasters and more — plus the behind-the-scenes work that few people ever see.
Her skills, experience and goals suited her well for the top job. When Marpe announced he would not run for a 3rd term, Tooker was ready.
She and Moore jumped into campaigning. “Westporters are savvy,” Tooker says. “They want to know their elected officials. This was my 4th townwide race. Every time I’m amazed at how much people want to meet candidates, and ask tough questions.”
The questions came via Facebook, Instagram, texts and calls. They came in person too. Tooker and Moore held a number of public meetings — including the porch at The Porch — to answer the questions.
And to listen.
Tooker learned that “by and large, people are really happy to be here. They feel blessed, connected, and invested in the community. They’re super proud of Westport. Whether they’re new or been here for 45 years, that gives them pride.”
She and Moore “had a message, and it ran all through the campaign. We were very focused on local issues, to ensure that Westport remains the best place in the region to live, work and play.”
The ticket won, she believes, because “we had a message that resonated with a sophisticated electorate. Westporters wanted to know us, and vet our message.”
In addition, Tooker says, “We ran a positive campaign. Westporters care deeply about that.”
Though hard work does not always guarantee a win, “we were out there every day, for 7 months. That was critical for people to meet us, and ask the questions they needed to ask.”
Second selectman Jennifer Tooker sported a “Be Bold” shirt at a meeting featuring Westport businesswomen.
Twelve hours after next Monday’s swearing in, Tooker heads back to Town Hall. Her first task, she says, is to meet with department heads. She’ll hear their priorities, talk about collaboration and communication, and make plans for the immediate future.
“It’s important to be a good manager,” she says. “Employees need o feel supported, to go out and do a good job for residents.”
Every 1st selectperson brings a different style to Town Hall. Though she worked closely with Marpe, Tooker says, “in certain situations I may be less patient than Jim. I don’t fly off the handle, but I may push a process or strive for an outcome a little more quickly.”
She calls Marpe “an excellent listener. He processes information by listening to people. That’s an excellent quality in a leader. In this line of work, where we are here to ensure that democracy prevails, it’s crucial to hear every voice. I hope I can be as good a listener as Jim is.”
Jen and Mo Tooker with their children: Jack, Riley and Nicole.
She has always worked — professionally and as a volunteer — so that won’t be new. But 1st selectwoman is a full-time, 24/7/365 job. Tooker had many conversations with her family before deciding to run. They understand the demands of the job.
Her husband Mo, and their children — 20-year-old Jack (a junior at Santa Clara University), 18-year-old Riley (taking a gap year before Southern Methodist University) and Nicole, an 8th grader — are “fully supportive” of her, Tooker says.
Also supportive: Tooker’s parents. They moved here to be with their daughter and her family during the pandemic. Her father, 87-year-old Bob “Pops” Salmon, lives in the Tookers’ home. Her mother is in the memory care unit at The Residence.
Jen and Mo Tooker with her father, Bob “Pops” Salmon.
All are “incredibly proud” of her. And most will be on hand at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Town Hall, to see Jen Tooker sworn is as Westport’s next 1st selectwoman.
(Monday’s ceremony will also include the swearing in of all boards and commissioners. RTM members will be sworn in the next night, Tuesday, also at 7:30 p.m.)
FUN FACT: After 12 years in the public eye, there is little that Westporters don’t know about Tooker. They may be surprised though to find out that she is an ardent fan of Chelsea, the English Premier League soccer powerhouse.
Westport has a new mill rate. Michael Calise reports:
The rate for the 2021-22 tax year was set by the Board of Finance at 18.07 mills.
Each year a new mill rate is set, based on 2 major factors: our Grand List (the total assessed value of all taxable properties in Westport, which is finalized by our tax assessor) and our annual budget (finalized by the RTM).
The mill rate is the multiplier of our Grand List, which produces the net revenue required to run our town after all other revenue streams and anticipated shortfalls (such as an allowance for unanticipated expenses) are factored into the mix.
Since the 2015 reassessment, our annual Grand List increase due to new construction and property improvements, as well as strict budget controls, have allowed our mill rate to remain constant — in fact, actually reduced for the tax year we are currently in.
This year a third and unexpected factor came into play: the 2020 reassessment determined a greater than 5.4% reduction in our Grand List.
Our final annual budget, as approved by the RTM, was set at a 2.6% increase. When factored against the 2020 Grand List (as described above), this necessitated the new mill rate of 18.07 mills. It is up from the current 16.71 mill rate. Individual property taxes for the ensuing year will be calculated based on the new assessment.
Actually, we have 2. This week, the Representative Town Meeting approved both the town and education budgets.
Here is Peter Gold’s report on the May 3 and 4 RTM meetings. He is an RTM member and a director of the Westport Transit District writing for himself, and not in an official capacity.
At back-to-back meetings this week, the RTM approved a total town and education budget of $220,814,210. That’s approximately 2.65% more than the current year.
On May 3 the RTM passed the town budget for the fiscal year ending June 20, 2022 of $77,103,992 — a 2.2% increase over the current year.
It also approved several smaller budgets for Earthplace, Westport Library, Westport-Weston Health District, Westport Transit District, railroad parking and Wakeman Town Farm, for a grand total of $85,509,447. That is a 2.59% increase over the current year.
Over 80% of the town’s budget goes to 4 areas: public safety (30%), funding for pensions and other post-employment benefits such as retiree health care (27%), public works (15%) and parks and recreation (9%).
All budgets except for Westport Transit District were unchanged from the budget recommended by the Board of Finance, and all passed unanimously.
In a 32-1 vote, the RTM restored $157,500 cut by the Board of Finance from the Westport Transit District‘s budget for its Wheels2U shuttle service introduced last October. The RTM took note of the letters it received from over 100 individuals and organizations in support of restoring the funds. RTM members also felt the pandemic made it difficult to fairly evaluate the Wheels2U service, and that it should be given a chance to prove itself as life returns closer to normal.
On May 4 the RTM approved the Board of Finance’s recommended budget for the Board of Education. The $135,304,763 approved by the RTM, while $1,347,716 less than the Board of Ed’s original request, is still a 3% increase over the current year.
The Board of Education chose not to ask the RTM to restore funds cut by the Board of Finance. Instead, it managed to make up the amount through increased state aid, and funds received under emergency grant programs like the Coronavirus Relief Fund and the American Rescue Plan.
As in prior years, the overwhelming majority of the Board of Education budget —81% — goes to salaries and benefits.
Prior to voting on the budget, the RTM was briefed by Board of Finance chair Brian Stern on the town’s financial condition. Despite unexpected expenses due to COVID and Hurricane Isaias, the town is projected to finish the fiscal year on June 30 within 1% of the amount budgeted last May. This amount — which can be covered by the town’s reserves — is due to hard work by town employees, and financial aid from state and federal governments.
Posted onApril 2, 2021|Comments Off on Board Of Ed Debates Budget Cuts
Money was on the minds of Board of Education members last night.
At their virtual meeting they addressed the gap between their submitted budget, and the $125,594,582 approved last month by the Board of Finance. The difference is $975,284.
Brian Fullenbaum reports that federal grants from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund’s (ESSER) 3rd round will total $1.6 million. The board will reserve 20% of that amount, to address learning loss.
Other grants approved for Westport include a maximum of $947,633 from the COVID relief fund, and $832,917 from the first 2 rounds of ESSER.
Two proposals were made. One would use $607,000 from ESSER II to meet the $975,000 reduction. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice would then request restoration of the rest of the $367,000 gap.
The other proposal would rely fully on the ESSER III grant money to fill the reduction gap.
Though the possibility of not receiving that third grant is small, the board discussed a backup plan.
The board also noted the need to adjust technology purchases, in the event that online learning continues into the next year.
In addition, education costs may rise due to increased enrollment. Over 100 extra students joined elementary schools, necessitating new hires. Enrollment numbers for next year are already looking strong.
The board deferred a decision until Monday’s meeting.
Every town department has submitted their requests to the 1st Selectman. He and his staff have crunched the numbers, asked them to trim some figures, then compiled it all into a 483-page document.
Now the Board of Finance steps up. They hold hearings next week. First comes the town budget; then education.
They’ll debate. They’ll vote. Then they’ll send their recommendations to the Representative Town Meeting.
There may be some intermediate steps — protests of some cuts, more back-and-forth, public input about what’s essential, what’s a frill, and whose ox is getting gored.
The town budget
But by mid-spring, Westport will have a budget. Everything from pencils to potholes will be funded. Our mill rate will be set.
And — despite perennial complaints about high taxes — just ask relatives and friends anywhere elsewhere in the tri-state are about their taxes. You’ll realize what we pay is pretty low, considering all we get. (Perhaps you can compare your taxes with others while watching the sunset at Compo, walking at Longshore, or waiting to pick up your kid at school.)
Those budgets and mill rates don’t fall from the sky. They involve plenty of planning, short- and long-range; plenty of scrutinizing; plenty of priorities.
And plenty of time. The budget process is months in the making. Much of it is tedious (and eye-straining). All of it is crucial.
Making a budget is the job of town employees. Passing it is the work of volunteers, on the Board of Education, Board of Finance, RTM and other bodies.
The education budget
It’s easy to say “my taxes are too high.” It’s easy to say “why do we need x, y or z?” (of course, your x, y and z is very different from mine).
It’s a lot tougher to study spreadsheet after spreadsheet, attend meeting after meeting, and cast difficult vote after difficult vote.
This week’s Unsung Heroes are all the women and men who make the process work. Westport would not be Westport without your service.
(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email email@example.com)
The Board of Finance begins its public examination soon.
First Selectman Jim Marpe presents his proposed town budget on Tuesday, March 9 and — if needed — Wednesday, March 10. He’s requesting $77,103,992 — a 2.21% increase over the current $75,439,392.
An additional $6,127,959 includes requests for the Westport Library ($5,090,148), Westport Weston Health District ($590,811), Westport Transit District ($342,000) and Earthplace ($105,000).
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice and Board of Education chair Candice Savin present their budgets on Thursday, March 11. They ask for $128,013,115 — up 4.98% over 2020-21’s $121,936.488. The bulk of the Board of Ed budget is salaries (64%) and benefits (16%).
All meetings are held via Zoom, starting at 7:30 p.m. They will be livestreamed on westportct.gov, and shown on Optimum channel 79 and Frontier channel 6020.
Emails to Board of Finance members can be sent to BOF@westportct.gov. Comments to be read during the public comment period may be emailed to BOFcomments@westportct.gov. Full names and addresses are needed.
To comment in real time during the meeting, send an email by noon that day to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, address and the agenda item (click here) to which your comments will relate. Participation details will be emailed to you.
The Westport Library’s next “Andrew Wilk Presents” examines anti-Semitism.
The event — a screening and conversation with filmmaker Andrew Goldberg and CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota — is set for next month.
On March 10 and 11, the Library offers Goldberg’s film “Viral: Anti-Semitism in 4 Mutations.” At 7 p.m. on the 11th, Goldberg will discuss the film with Camerota — anchor of the “New Day” morning show — and take questions from the virtual audience.
Camerota lives in Westport. Goldberg recently moved here. To register, and for more information, click here.
Looking for a summer camp for your kids? Something along the lines of, say, Recycled/Upcycling Art, Nature in Art, Engineering and Art, Chemistry and Art, Movement and Art?
Those are some of the weekly themes at Camp MoCA, a new summer day camp for youngsters ages 3 to 13. It runs June 7 to August 27; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, rain or shine. Certified educators and art instructors are in charge.
An early registration discount of $100 per week is available through May 1. Campers can sign up for one or multiple weeks. Click here for details.
And finally … on this day in 1791, Congress passed a law admitting the state of Vermont to the Union, effective March 4. It had existed for 14 years as an independent republic.
Many Westporters love Vermont. Among them: Jon Gailmor. The 1966 Staples High School graduate has lived there for decades. He runs music-writing workshops in schools, writes and performs all over, and has eveb been named an official “state treasure.”
Jon’s “Long Ago Lady” is a love song to his adopted state. It’s a beautiful tribute, to a wonderful place.
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