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Debate Comes Out of the Closet

First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell’s budget message to the Board of Finance Wednesday night (March 5, 2003) wasn’t the news.

We already knew her town budget and the Board of Ed budget would likely result in a 10 percent plus tax increase.

What was news was that a debate long discussed off the record among elected officials and townspeople alike came into the open unexpectedly in the sparsely attended BOF budget session.

It was the majority Democrats (4) vs the minority Republicans (3) on the town budget. (The voting was different on the ed budget—see below.)

Essentially, the Republicans, led by Rob Graham, argued that these are tough times that call for lean budgets. Reduce headcounts, they said. And do it aggressively.

The Democrats, led by chair Steve Ezzes, said that’s an admirable goal but reduced headcounts mean reduced services.

“Frankly,” he said, “I’m not sure the general population wants us to do that. I’ve not heard that from anyone.”

Bingo. Finally the debate was in the open. Westport is a sought-after community to live in and commands top dollar housing values because people demand—and get—top schools and services, the Democrat seemed to be saying.

And, more importantly, he implied, they are willing to pay for it.

The Republicans seemed stunned to hear their chair publicly espouse such an idea and had no immediate rejoinder. They did try to table the entire town budget, hoping it would be brought back in a reduced form. But that effort failed 3-4 on a strictly partly line vote.

The Republicans then proceeded to vote against almost every line of the town budget, including the fire and police budgets. Only on the library and health district budgets did Republican Rick Benson side with the Democrats, making it a 5-2 approval for those items.

In the end, the board approved both the town and education budgets after voting to hold back some small amounts earmarked for bonding capital projects that they have yet to approve.

On the education budget, the vote was 6-1 with the lone holdout Graham. Members have a chance to restore the cuts next month.

Meanwhile, party lines and fiscal philosophies are a lot more legible for voters to see—at least on the Board of Finance.

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