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For Finance Board, It’s Business Unusual

By James Lomuscio

In the throes of budget season, it wasn’t business as usual but business unusual tonight for Westport’s Board of Finance as it grappled with planned state cuts and eleventh hour costs totaling about $8 million.

After hearing public input at the special meeting and following much deliberation in an executive session, the board agreed that the total town and school proposed budget of $206 million for 2017-18 should be decreased by $3.5 million.

That way, budgets would be in place by the start of fiscal year beginning July 1, said Brian Stern, finance board chairman. And if the remaining $4.5 million actually hits when the state’s budget in finalized in September, the finance board would revisit the budget — and a modest tax increase is likely.

The reason for all the uncertainty? Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed that municipalities pay one-third of teacher pensions, a potential liability translates into an extra $5.9 million per year here, $8 million when tallied with $2.1 million in state cuts to Westport for next year.

“We’re here to solve an $8 million problem and to get a budget by June that is fully funded and balanced,” Stern said.

Stern suggested a “modest” tax increase is likely despite the fiscally responsible proposed town and school budgets. The town’s $79 million proposed budget represents a 1.44 percent decrease from 2016-17. The $115,351,346 proposed school budget is a 2.44 percent, or $2.7 million, increase.

“When you look at those two numbers … it would have been approved very quickly,” Stern said, adding that the town’s largest source of revenue, property taxes, are up 1.36 percent. “Unfortunately, we know we are not in normal circumstances.”

Public schoolteachers in the state’s Teacher Retirement System contribute 6 percent of their salary, and the state covers the pensions 100 percent for each of Connecticut’s school systems, an amount reported to be about $1.2 billion this year.
Next year Malloy, staring down a $1.7 billion state deficit, wants towns to pitch in $407.6 million, $420.9 in 2019. Stern estimates that number will grow by 20 percent over five years.

Affluent towns like Westport that pay teachers higher salaries than other towns would be hit hardest, having to contribute more to retirement.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg suggested that the town steel itself from the state’s fiscal malaise by combining redundant town and school services, not taking on more debt in capital projects that can be postponed, amending the town charter, “and to look at what other towns do.

“We have to get out of our comfort zone,” Steinberg said “ … not only to survive what happens in Hartford, but to survive as a community.”

Westporter Don Bergmann that the town and the schools have already moved ahead with consolidations to cut costs, and that school’s budget for next year should be cut by $1 million.

“I think the school budget is too high,” he said.

Ann Spencer, a PTA Council representative, countered that the Board of Education and Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer worked hard “with no games played” to bring forth a “frugal budget” with only a 2.44 percent increase. She also suggested that the schools find ways use funds in its accounts, such as its cafeteria fund, in which there is $1 million, to help offset costs.

Jennifer Johnson asked that town officials revisit overtime.

“I just can’t comprehend that number,” she said citing a recent report of the top 10 highest town employees in which a police officer with a base salary of $84,000 made $240,000 with overtime and outside work.

Tonight’s input was not limited to Westport residents. Jon Zagrodzky, chairman of Darien’s Board of Finance., also spoke, saying, “You can rest assured, we’re all saying the same thing.”

“With regard to these costs being imposed on the towns, it’s just getting started,” he said.

Zagrodsky suggested that towns should budget as towns, “separate from what’s going on in Hartford,” and that when the added tax bill comes to inform the residents “these are the people you have to contact” in Hartford.

Michael Gordon, school board chairman, said he and his board were eager to work with the finance board to find a solution.

“I want to give you my personal commitment that we’re going to keep sharpening our pencil, “he said. “We want to be part of the solution.

“That being said, the Board of Education would not do anything that would affect the programming in our schools,” he added.

Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer cautioned, “It’s very easy to make reductions to a budget, but not easy to maintain quality.”

In their executive session, finance board members initially sought overall reductions totaling $4 million for next year, an amount that was later lowered to $3.5 million. Michael rea, vice chairman, objected, saying the amount should be higher not to shock taxpayers in September.

“I think we need to be a little more challenging to the town and the board of Education,” Rea said. “The number is too low.”

Stern said the $3.5 million for next year could be offset by the sale of a Riverside Avenue building the schools no longer use and is worth $850,000 and possibly stretching out OPEB (other post-employment benefits) payments from 20 to 25 years, saving $450,000 annually.

The Board of Finance is scheduled to pore over both budgets Tuesday, March 14, through Thursday, March 16.

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