Board of Finance receptive to '14 spending plans
Updated 7:05 am, Thursday, March 7, 2013
The proposed municipal and education budgets for the next fiscal year appear likely to win Board of Finance approval without major cuts this year, after a review of the spending plans by the finance panel Wednesday night triggered no strong criticism.
Presenting a $75.6 million municipal budget he proposed for 2013-14, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff reiterated many of the top concerns of his administration, including an emphasis on the town's emergency services.
"My priority is public safety," Joseloff said. "It is ensuring that our first responders are the best trained and the best equipped as possible. And my priority is ensuring that when something does happen, we can save life and property and, if criminals are involved, catch those who are responsible."
Joseloff's proposed spending plan allocates about $20 million for public-safety departments, an approximately 3 percent increase over this year's spending.
The first selectman's budget also calls for increased informational-technology spending for new contract work to keep the town computer systems "current," and additional funding for a full-time tree warden and improved tree maintenance.
"We can no longer look the other way and not recognize that we need to begin to manage our urban forest," Joseloff said. "What we have found out is that we are woefully behind some of our neighbors in addressing this issue."
Expenditures for town employees' pension and post-retirement health-care benefits rise by about 1 percent in Joseloff's budget, an increase driven by his administration's adoption of a lower-than-expected rate of return for the investment funds that finance those benefit payouts.
In an interview with the Westport News after Wednesday's meeting, Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner praised Joseloff's proposed budget.
"The selectman's budget is a responsible budget and also highly conservative in terms of benefit funding," Kaner said.
After Joseloff's presentation, the finance board reviewed the Board of Education's proposed $104.2 million budget for 2013-14. That budget would raise education expenditures by 3.95 percent over the current year, the largest percentage increase in school spending since the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney framed that proposed increase as a counterpoint to an approximately 2 percent compound annual growth rate in education spending during the last five budget cycles and more than $3 million in "hard, ongoing, recurring cuts" on an annual basis during the same period.
"We really are at a tipping point where any significant reductions will really affect the caliber of our programs and our services," Whitney told the finance board.
The proposed education budget would add 11 staff positions in the school district -- including several teachers, paraprofessionals and a psychologist -- raising the total school employee roster to 883. While student enrollment in Westport's public schools will essentially stay flat at about 5,800, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon attributed the need for more personnel partly to "continued pressure" on class sizes at Staples High School.
"More students are taking more classes than ever before," Landon said.
The school board's proposed budget totals about $1.2 million less than the spending plan Landon presented in January. Among their cuts to the superintendent's request, the Board of Education reduced by $500,000 his proposed allocation to the school district's health-insurance reserve. With that cut expected to be offset by approximately $500,000 in savings next year by moving teachers into health-savings accounts, several board members indicated that they were receptive to the lower allotment to the health-insurance reserve.
"If we have a reserve that's sized appropriately, but not too generously, it means for reasonable changes in outcome, they [the education board] can handle it, but for large changes they have to come to us," said Tom Lasersohn. "It would also mean that the reserve is unavailable to cover things it shouldn't cover -- which is what I like."
Finance board members also scrutinized a proposed increase next year of approximately $200,000 in the school district's spending on textbooks, e-textbooks and online materials. Landon attributed that spending rise partly to the school district needing to purchase more non-fiction books to meet the new Common Core Standards, which will go into effect next year in Connecticut public schools.
No one in the audience at Wednesday night's meeting commented on the spending proposals for the new fiscal year.
The finance board did not take any votes Wednesday on the proposed budgets. It is set to vote March 19 on the municipal budget and March 21 on the education budget.
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