Tag Archives: Westport Board of Finance

Jennifer Tooker Runs For #2

When Avi Kaner decided to forgo a 2nd run for 2nd selectman, it did not take Jim Marpe long to name Jennifer Tooker as his running mate.

The Dallas native and University of Notre Dame graduate lived in Chicago and London while she and her husband Mo worked for GenRe. (They met in a training class.)

When they were transferred to corporate headquarters in Stamford, they did the usual: searched for the right town (and commute) in Fairfield County.

Tooker says they fell in love with all of Westport, including historic home on North Sylvan.

“The commitment to public education, the beach — we felt a great vibe right from the start,” she notes.

Jennifer Tooker

Realizing this was her family’s final move, she decided to act on her long desire for public service. Tooker was appointed to the Conservation Commission — an excellent introduction to the ins and outs of local and state government.

In 2011 she ran for the Board of Education. Talk of “Westport 2025” intrigued her. She believed that her experience overseeing a global department was a good fit for the 21st-century skills the board was examining. Her financial background could help too.

Voters agreed, and elected her.

“In local politics, it doesn’t matter if there’s an ‘R’ or ‘D’ after your name,” she says. “The goal is to figure out how to get things done for all the people you serve. I’m proud that on the Board of Ed we took a pretty non-partisan view.”

Two years later, Tooker ran for the Board of Finance. She cited her knowledge of the education budget process, and ability to bridge communication gaps between the 2 important town bodies.

Juggling her job, public service and a household with 3 kids was not easy. In 2013 she resigned from GenRe.

“I really enjoyed my government work,” Tooker says. “I wanted to devote all my time and energy to it.”

But she found time to join local non-profits too. She is particularly proud of her work with the Adam J. Lewis Preschool in Bridgeport. “I’m passionate about doing what I can to bridge the achievement gap in education,” she says.

Jennifer Tooker, with her family: husband Mo, daughter Riley, son Jack and daughter Nicole. 

So why is Tooker leaving the finance board — with its important power — to run for 2nd selectman?

“With all that’s going on with the state budget, we’re in for tough times,” she warns. “I think this is the right time for someone with my breadth and depth of experience, and my business principles, to step in and help the town stay vibrant and wonderful.”

And, she adds, “I can’t pass up the opportunity to serve with Jim. I admire his character, his accomplishments and his vision.” The pair worked together on the Board of Education.

She hopes to “help this administration achieve its goals, while navigating turbulent economic times and still maintaining the quality of life in Westport.”

Pointing to the model Marpe used with Kaner and 3rd selectman Helen Garten, Tooker says the 1st selectman can “figure out the best way to use all of our skill sets to keep Westport unique and vibrant.”

There’s plenty of campaigning ahead. But, Tooker says, she loves to kayak, paddleboard and go to the beach with her kids. Those too are parts of her summer plans.

Mike Rea Suspends 1st Selectman Campaign

Jim Marpe’s route to re-election as first selectman just got easier.

Last night, Mike Rea announced he was suspending his potential run for the town’s top post.

The vice chair of the Board of Finance formed an exploratory committee in March.

Now, he says, business commitments prevent him from dedicating the time to the effort. Rea serves as vice president of corporate services and global real estate for Gen Re.

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

Rea notes that he was “overwhelmed with the support and encouragement from Westporters across the political spectrum.” He looks forward to serving out his finance board term.

The lifelong Westport resident, 1970 Staples High School graduate and 35-year volunteer in town government believes that the challenges Westport faces today “require new thinking. The state of Connecticut has thrust financial issues upon Westport. Residents should and are expecting more, requiring new creative thinking from our town leaders.”

He adds, “This is a good time for new and younger people to step forward and volunteer to serve our community. Contact the political party of your choice and sign up to run for office. Westport is counting on you.”

Senior Center Expansion Moves Forward

With support from a wide range of town officials, the Westport/Weston Clergy Association and — most importantly — longtime residents, the Board of Finance last night unanimously approved $3.975 million to expand the Senior Center.

Dozens of Westporters had written in praise of the project. Finance members seemed moved by the broad support — particularly the emails and letters (many of them handwritten) from men and women who have lived here for decades.

The expansion will add 8,362 square feet to the Imperial Road facility, and add 27 parking spots.

Construction could begin in the fall of 2018.

A rendering of the proposed Senior Center building.

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.