A $193 million town budget for 2013-14 has won unanimous support from the Representative Town Meeting's Finance Committee, which Thursday left unchanged the $104.2 allocation proposed for education and recommended restoring $30,000 cut last month from municipal expenditures by the Board of Finance.
The committee's endorsement indicates the full RTM, when it votes on the spending plans next month, will likely approve the overall budget without further reductions. The 36-member legislative body has final authority over the total budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
A $193 million total spending package would increase expenditures by 2.4 percent compared to the current year. The school board's proposed $104.2 million education budget would have a 3.95 percent annual uptick, while the $75.6 million municipal spending plan backed by the committee would be 2.4 percent higher.
"Would I always like increases to be lower, absolutely, but I think this was pretty responsible for what we had to get done," Jeff Wieser, District 4, the Finance Committee's chairman, told the Westport News. "I think a lot of people did a lot of good stuff to keep it in line."
The education budget did not attract any major criticism, but Dick Lowenstein, District 5, suggested that it include revenue targets. The school district tracks revenue from services such as facility rentals during the last fiscal year, but it does not set income goals.
"I want to see at least you setting a goal of revenues, however modest it is, so you can start to say you're moving in that direction," he said.
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon appeared unenthusiastic about Lowenstein's recommendation.
"We're not going to run out to the Bridgeport symphony or the New Haven symphony and say, `Come on, we've got this space, let's use it,' " he said. "I don't think that's our responsibility, to be perfectly frank. We don't have the people, and we don't have the time. It's not even in our mission."
Lowenstein, nevertheless, joined all of his committee colleagues in voting for the school board's spending plan. The committee's endorsement followed unanimous backing for the education budget Tuesday from the RTM's Education Committee.
Elaine Whitney, the board's chairwoman, told the Westport News after Thursday's meeting that she was pleased with the committees' reviews of schools spending plans.
"We've had very productive discussions and excellent and thoughtful questions," she said. "I'm pleased that the Finance and Education Committees understand the drivers of ours costs and appreciate the efforts we've made to keep our budget increases as low as possible."
The committee recommended rescinding $30,000 of the $83,000 cut last month by the finance board from First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed municipal spending package. It endorsed a $20,000 restoration to the Transit District's budget and $10,000 to the town's allocation to the Earthplace nature discovery center, a Westport nonprofit.
The Transit District proposed an approximately $279,000 town allocation for its 2013-14 budget, including $20,000 to develop a marketing plan aimed at increasing ridership. While finance board members have indicated they would consider approving money for marketing in the future, they slashed that earmark when they voted on the transit budget.
"I think it's integral to the goals that are mutually shared," Gene Cederbaum, one of the transit district's co-directors, told the committee. "All of us want to increase ridership."
Committee members were receptive to Cederbaum's argument.
"I think you guys should have this reinstated, because you've made the effort over the last year," said Gil Nathan, District 9.
Earthplace officials came to the committee for backing of their proposed $95,000 allocation next year. The finance board cut $10,000 from that request.
Marie Dalton-Meyer, Earthplace's interim executive director, argued that the additional $10,000 would help the nonprofit work towards key goals such as improving operational efficiency and establishing a higher profile in the town.
"Our mission is to build a passion in the community for nature and the environment through education, experience and action," she said. "Please help us get where we're going. The additional $10,000 will make a difference for us."
Committee members unanimously accepted the original $95,000 allotment.
"The $10,000 isn't going to make or break you, but it does express a certain amount of investment from the town in a turnaround situation and rebirth hopefully," Wieser said.
The full RTM is set to review and vote on the municipal budget on Monday, May 6, and the education budget on Tuesday, May 7, during public hearings in the Town Hall auditorium.
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