Tag Archives: Westport Board of Finance

Town Mill Rate Set: 0% Increase

Westport’s mill rate is set.

It’s exactly the same as last year.

The Board of Finance voted unanimously last night to keep the town’s mill rate at 16.86, for fiscal year 2017-18. The board did express concern about the possibility of a mid-year “supplemental assessment,” depending upon state finances.

The total town budget is $204,240,189.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said:

I am proud of our department heads for working diligently to control costs and improve efficiencies, while at the same time maintaining and enhancing our infrastructure. We have been able to absorb the fully restored school budget through the efforts of all town departments. We continue to reform our pension and health programs as we continue to fully fund our obligations and aggressively pay down debt.

Our community is united to ensure that Westport continues to be a highly desirable place to live – for our youth, young families, and seniors. In addition to fully supporting our world-class schools, this year’s budget includes enhancements to downtown, the beaches, and the senior center. Our grand list continues to grow and enables us to mitigate property tax increases, reflecting the confidence residents and businesses have in investing in Westport.

Board of Finance chairman Brian Stern commended “the hard work and commitment of the town’s department heads and professionals. While not raising property taxes, we will also be able to retain reserves at 11%, at the high end of our policy range and consistent with the town’s Aaa rating.”

Budgets: 2. Drama: 0.

Something was missing this week, when the RTM considered Westport’s 2 budgets.

Rancor.

On Monday night, the legislative body unanimously approved $79 million in town spending for 2015-16. That’s a 2.51% increase over the current year. Included in the funding: $37,714 previously cut from the Transit District.

Last night, the vote was again unanimous: $111 million for the Board of Education. That’s a cut of $300,000 from what the Board of Finance approved in March; it’s up 1.8% from last year.

RTM members praised Jim Marpe’s administration, the superintendent of schools and  Board of Ed for the care and scrutiny with which they prepared their requests.

Westport sealBudget season in Westport used to be high drama. Proponents claimed that every dollar was sacrosanct to the future of Westport. Opponents shouted that massive cuts were needed to avoid fiscal ruin. Invective would spew. Referendums were threatened (or actually held). Things got ugly.

And the next year, the same thing happened all over again.

Budget season has been quiet for a while now. A couple of elements are at work.

Selectmen, the superintendent and Board of Ed have been prudent and honest in their requests. They’ve worked closely with the Board of Finance to understand what’s realistic — and the Board of Finance has worked hard to understand realistic requests.

All sides have tried to balance the all-important (and very elusive) concept of “quality of Westport life” with the economic realities of the 21st century.

Political posturing has been replaced with true bipartisanship.

Westport Public  SchoolsNo one in Westport threatens a government shutdown. No one wants to sequester funds. No one panders to a special set of constituents or supporters. That’s the way democracy works. Or it’s supposed to, anyway.

We haven’t heard a lot of names of local politicians lately. Many Westporters don’t even know who is chairman of the Board of Finance (John Pincavage) or Board of Ed (Michael Gordon). One is a Republican. The other’s a Democrat. Together, they and their boards govern effectively — and without egos.

The Board of Finance sets the official mill rate 2 weeks from today. A minimal increase is expected from the current 17.94.

Peaceable Kingdom

As the country is consumed by partisan rancor, here in Westport kumbaya reigns.

Last night’s Board of Finance vote on the education budget featured none of the fuming and fulmination that sometimes characterizes Westport’s own March madness.

Instead, members of both parties went out of their way to praise the Board of Education‘s work — and that of the town’s teachers and administrators.

The  finance board then voted unanimously to cut just $250,000 from the proposed operating budget — coming from technology, not personnel — and also unanimously passed the total education budget of $112.42 million (which includes aid to private and parochial schools, long-term debt service, and debt service on bond anticipation notes).

Also unanimously, the Board of Finance approved the total town budget of $178.64 million.

It was all over in little more than an hour.  No finger-pointing.  No rancor.  No bile or bluster.

Senators, congressmen:  Are you listening?

Last night's Board of Finance meeting was like the Peaceable Kingdom.

The Education Budget

Tomorrow, the Board of Education presents its proposed 2011-12 budget to the Board of Finance.  The request — approximately $98 million — represents a 2.36% increase over the current year.  Before approving it unanimously, the Board of Ed cut more than $400,000 from the Superintendent’s proposal.

The Board of Finance — and, later, the RTM — will examine various cost centers.  They’ll hone in here, ask questions there, and may suggest further cuts.  It’s a springtime ritual, one folks in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya would die for (quite literally).

Before all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing begins, here are some thoughts:

Westport is not at the top when compared to similar districts. In fact, since the economy tanked we’ve been a leader in minimizing year-to-year increases (only Weston is lower).  And of all the towns in our “district reference group,” we’ve got the lowest requested annual rate of increase.

More than 82% of the budget is driven by salaries and benefits. In fact, the entire 2.36% increase requested is applied to contractual salary increases owed to employees.  The Board of Ed is asking for nothing more.  Union contracts requiring approval beyond the Board of Ed were passed overwhelmingly by the Board of Finance and RTM — and led to greater contributions by employees toward health care costs.

Over the past 2 years, there’s been a $3.6 million budgetary shortfall in the area of contractual salaries. The result has been reductions in the music and gifted programs, staff cuts in elementary schools and libraries, deferred maintenance and more.  The Board of Ed anticipates 865 employees next year — 6 fewer than this year.

Inevitably, Person A will ask why we have “x” program.  Person B will explain its importance, and question why instead we have “y.”  Person C will know that both “x” and “y” are valuable, but not say anything because it is much easier to criticize than praise.

Inevitably too, someone will note that I am an employee of the Westport school system.  That is true.  I do several things, on a part-time basis.  I earn a few thousand dollars a year from the Board of Ed.  I get no benefits — certainly not retirement.  I pay 100% of my own health insurance.

Much has changed since Horace Staples donated a high school to Westport. But his vision for a top-rate education lives on throughout town.

But I am willing to pay my fair share of the education costs (and of the entire town budget, though that’s not the topic of this post).  I know the tremendous value our schools provide for kids today.  I appreciate what they did for me, back in the day.  I know how much more in taxes my sisters in Westchester County and New Jersey pay (and don’t get the one in Gov. Christie’s state started on what’s happening there).

I know how much more — proportionally, and in some cases actually — people in neighboring towns and cities pay, for school systems that don’t come close to ours.

The debate this spring should not be about the failures of America’s educational system generally, or a bad experience one person’s child had one year with one teacher.  It should be about whether we believe Westport schools — in a wide variety of ways and, working under a staggering set of demands and for a broad range of constituencies — are preparing our children to live in, work in, contribute to and help change a dizzyingly challenging world.

And, if we believe that, whether the Board of Ed budget is a worthwhile investment in that future.

Conspiracy Theorists, Take Note

Westport’s 3 Republican Board of Finance members — Charlie Haberstroh, Ed Iannone and Avi Kaner — joined Republican Town Committee chairman Bob Zappi this past weekend, in Pinehurst, N.C.

No, they were not raising piles of cash from wealthy donors.

Nor did they plan a takeover of town government.

They were there to celebrate the wedding of Charlie’s son, Chuck.

The guy in the center of the photo (above) made sure no town business was transacted illegally.

Losing The Library

Theo Sullivan is a Staples water polo coach — and Westport Public Library lover.

Recently, he urged the Board of Finance to restore cuts proposed in next year’s budget.  If not, he noted, the library might have to close on many Sundays.

When he told his team what he’d said, one responded:  “I didn’t know they were allowed to close a library.”

“They” can do whatever “they” want.

So Westporters have barraged RTM members with phone calls and emails, pleading for restoration.  The RTM Finance Committee recommended restoring $45,000 cut by the Board of Finance.  The full RTM now must agree, by at least a 70 percent vote.

The Westport Library is busy all the time -- but always welcoming.

The proposed cuts have touched citizens in ways that others — aimed at public safety, recreation, even education — have not.

The reason, director Maxine Bleiweis thinks, is because the library is integrally tied in with the way the town identifies itself.

“The library embodies how nearly everyone learns, grows, and becomes creative,” Maxine says.  “It’s like part of the Westport air — and now the air supply may be cut off.”

“We don’t have time to be closed,” she says.  “We have to be open, to feed and nurture all that goes on in this community.”

Our discussion was interrupted — it seemed almost like a setup, but it wasn’t — by a call to Maxine from Keith Richards’ publicist.  If the Rolling Stones’ PR guy needs the Westport library, there can’t be anyone in the area who doesn’t.

If the library can’t get no satisfaction through the restoration of funds, Sunday closings are a real possibility.  That’s a better option, Bleiweis says, than cutting staff and services whenever the doors are open.

“You can’t have a restaurant that functions at less than full capacity,” the library director notes.  And — as has been proven over and over — the Westport library is as much a part of town life as food and wine.

Or the air that we breathe.

(The RTM begins voting Monday to accept or restore Board of Finance budget cut recommendations for all town departments.  The library is one of the last agenda items — meaning a vote may not come until Tuesday, or even Wednesday.  In the meantime, Westporters are contacting RTM members, and/or making plans to attend the meeting — whenever it is held.)

A Taxpayer’s Lament

Here’s an open letter to the Board of Finance and RTM from a Westport taxpayer.  The writer does not wish to be identified, due to the personal information revealed.

To the Board of Finance and RTM:

I have followed with interest and dismay the decisions made by the Board of Finance on the town and Board of Education budgets.  As an employee of the Board of Education, as well as a Westport property owner, I am directly affected by their decisions.

I had planned on paying my property taxes this year (and next).  I know that times are tough and money is tight.  Now I will lose my full-time job with the Board of Ed, at worst, or have my take-home income reduced, at best.

But that’s okay; I’m industrious.  I am lucky enough to have a part-time job, in addition to my full-time job.  As long as I don’t actually lose my job, I may be able to make up my reduced take-home by taking extra hours at my part-time job.

Uh-oh.  The Board of Finance cut the Library budget.  My boss said that if the library is closed on Sundays, he will close because he will lose so much business.  So not only can I not get additional hours, I will make less money at my part-time job this year as well.

Gee.  I had planned on paying my taxes, I really had.  And if the Board of Finance hadn’t done such a good job of protecting me, I still might be able to.

Comments, as always, are welcome encouraged.

Morris Jesup might be lonelier on Sundays, if the Westport Public Library is forced to reduce hours due to budget cuts.


The $3 Million Elephant — Or $8 Million. Or $30 Million

Last Sunday, retired businessman and 35-year resident Jim Goodrich offered some thoughts here on the town budget — including the pension liability.

His “06880” piece elicited strong reactions — including several explanations of the pension fund.  Today, Jim addresses those responses.

You’re never too old to learn.

By going to the recent Board of Finance meeting, thinking about that meeting, then posting observations that generated considerable feedback, I’ve picked up a bit more understanding about my town.  I find it useful.  Maybe you will too.

I called the pension fund “elephant in the room” a $3 million problem.  Is it really an $8 million problem — or $30 million?

The answer is:  It’s all 3 problems.  Here’s — in rounded numbers — is why.

The $30 million refers to an unfunded shortfall in the town’s obligation to the pension fund for municipal employees.  (Teachers are not included; they’re covered at the state level.)

The $8 million refers to the annual amount the town must pay for the next 30 years, in order to fulfill its pension obligations.

Now it gets really interesting.

The $3 million represents a reduction to the $8 million annual payment the actuaries say the town should pay into the pension fund.  Why would Westport pay only $5 million of the $8 million into the fund, creating a larger long-term obligation?

This is not where our pension fund is. We hope.

The answer is pretty straightforward.  By underpaying the pension fund, town and Board of Ed budgets can be more fully funded without having to raise taxes as much, or at all.  Of course, the amount of the underpayment must be paid someday — just not now.

There are all kinds of discussions knowledgeable people can have on this point — and much of the subtext at the recent Board of Finance meeting dealt with this issue.  What seems to be going on is “fiscal responsibility” versus “competent resource management” in balancing important community needs and the taxpayer’s ability to pay.  The BOF is the place these discussions should take place.

Currently, town and school officials are finalizing details to show what a total of $2.6 million cut in funding will mean to educational programs, as well as vital services.  The public does not yet know the exact cuts to be made — but they are expected to be serious.

What does “serious” mean?  It could easily be headcount cuts to police, fire and teaching personnel, plus public works and all other town departments.  What may get hit are all the “S”s – safety, security and schools — as well as Westport’s large “Q” (quality of life).

So pay attention.  We may know within a few days what the cuts will bring.  By Wednesday the BOF will have voted — and then it’s a done deal.

For a moment, consider what would happen if the BOF went in another direction and simply reinstated the $2.6 million to the town and school budgets.  Would the world come to an end?

No.  But taxes would go up by an average of about $260 for each Westport household.  There are 2 people in my household.  That’s $130 for each of us for the year.  It’s $2.50 a week — 36 cents a day.  For safety, security, excellent schools and quality of life — I don’t know about you, but it seems like a bargain to me.

(What do you think?  To contact the Board of Finance, click here.)

The Education Budget — Remember That?

In 2009, Westport was engulfed in a battle over the education budget.

This year:  not a peep.

There have been a couple of articles in the local press, and 1 or 2 letters to the editor.  Beyond that:  nada.

If you missed it, here’s what’s happening:

The Board of Education has requested a 2.13% increase for 2010-11.  Word on the street is that the Board of Finance — which votes next Wednesday (March 24) — intends to keep the Board of Ed budget flat to this year.

Earlier this month, the Board of Ed made its case to the Finance men and women.

The main points:

  • Recent district awards include “Best High School in Connecticut” (Connecticut Magazine and Business Week); national honors for Science Research; a nationally recognized theater program; a Gold Medal for Inklings; a national “Blue Ribbon School” honor for Bedford.
  • 54% of graduates attend Barron’s “Top Rated” colleges; graduation rate is near 100%
  • An extensive World Language program includes Mandarin; AP test participation has increased 130% over 8 years, with strong results.
  • The middle school has a successful “team teaching” concept, and elementary school class sizes work well
  • Staples’ “Spectacular Student Challenge” and Moody’s Math Challenge illustrate the success of collaborative learning and real-life analytical, problem-solving skills.

Turning to actual figures, the Board of Ed cites:

  • An increase of $2,011,002 over the 2009-10 budget
  • Projected staffing is flat compared to the current budget
  • The new Westport Education Association contract — with a net 2% annual increase — is included in the proposed budget
  • Ongoing negotiations with 4 other unions will impact the 2010-11 budget
  • During the budget review process, $374,000 was removed from the initial recommendation; this includes bus savings of $225,000, heating savings of $148,000, and lowered supplies and equipment costs of $112,000
  • Salaries and benefits account for 82% of the proposed budget; supplies and equipment count for just 3.6%
  • Of the 15 full-time equivalent school positions eliminated last year, none were added back this year, and none will be added back next year — despite protests from parents who have seen services reduced
  • In Westport’s District Reference Group of 10 similar districts, the 2-year budget increase of 2.67% (0.54% in 2009, 2.13% in 2010) is the 9th smallest.  Redding’s is 8.10%; Darien’s is 8%; 3 others are more than 5%, and Wilton, Ridgefield and New Canaan are all at least 1% more than Westport.  Weston, at 1.64%, is less than Westport.
  • In that  District Reference Group, Westport’s cost per student of $16,325 is squarely in the middle.  Region 9 leads at $17,895; Greenwich, Weston and New Canaan all have higher costs per student.  Redding, Wilton, Darien, Easton and Ridgefield all have lower costs per student
  • The 2.67% increase over 2 years has been accomplished by adjusting school start times; eliminating 4th-grade paraprofessionals; reducing library paraprofessionals; consolidating department chairs; reducing individual music lessons at Staples; reducing the gifted program staff levels; lowering school building utility costs via aggressive contract management; negotiating a new bus contract; negotiating a new WEA (teachers union) contract, and implementing a townwide telephone system

The Board of Ed’s final points addressed key reasons to approve the budget as submitted:

  • With 82% of the budget related to personnel, any reduction will impact employees, students, and programs that define the schools
  • Benchmark data show Westport to be District Reference Group leaders in cost containment
  • The Board of Ed works with the town to seize opportunities to lower costs without impacting services
  • Westport’s schools are the town’s most significant attraction; property values reflect the strength of the schools
  • “A move from Great Schools to Good Schools is in no one’s interest.”

The Board of Ed has presented its case.  The Board of Finance votes Wednesday.

Speaking out after that point — about class size increases, program eliminations or anything else — is less effective than making opinions known now.

It’s been a silent budget process so far.  Feedback is welcome; click the “Comments” link at the top or bottom of this post.  To contact Board of Finance members directly, click here.

A Kindler, Gentler Budget Process

“06880” is not Nostradamus.  But if Wednesday night’s candidate debate is any indication, the 2010 budget process will be far less rancorous than ’09.

The Board of Finance candidates — 4 are competing for 3 seats — oozed civility and reasonableness, at the LWV-sponsored event.  More importantly, all acknowledged — in fact, stressed — the crucial role of our schools in keeping the town vibrant, and our property values high.

To varying degrees, all said:  Education is important.  And it is important that we pay for the high-quality education our school system provides.

The Board of Ed candidates reiterated the need to focus on programs, courses and class size.  Whatever goes on each day in our classrooms — from kindergarten through high school — is the key component of education.

Candidates for both boards emphasized the need to communicate with each other — and with other departments, and the town at large — long before budget votes are taken.

On paper, those words can sound like the promises we hear every year.  But the measured tones in which they were conveyed — and the memory of last spring’s harsh meetings and votes — makes us hopeful that this year’s budget process will be civil, efficient and relatively stress-free.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  If last May can be considered “history,” it seems Westport has learned its lesson well.

blog - Dodd

Last spring, Staples students protested proposed budget cuts. Will this year's budget process be less confrontational?