The municipal budget process is a mathematical marathon that takes months to run, culminating with the setting of the property tax rate.

And just as the starting gun sounded, the town of Westport this week chose a new participant who will play a critical role in the budget process -- and in town finances far beyond that.

The town has named a veteran municipal-finance executive to become Westport's chief fiscal officer, replacing John Kondub, who is scheduled to retire next month.

The hiring of Gary Conrad, the town of New Canaan's chief financial officer for 17 years, comes after voters in November gave Republicans control of the board of finance and it cements the town's fiscal leadership team moving forward.

The reshaping of the finance board and naming of a new finance director come in the wake of last fall's stunning discovery that the funding of benefits for retired town employees had a $75 million liability because an actuarial firm hired by the town had failed to count hundreds of retirees in calculating costs.

Conrad is certain to be a busy man in coming months. As Westport's municipal budget process kicks into high gear, so too will New Canaan's. While Conrad wades into Westport's numbers for the first time, he has reportedly told New Canaan officials he would be available to consult with them on preparation of their budget and on contract negotiations with the New Canaan police union.

In announcing Conrad's hiring Tuesday, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff did not immediately disclose what his annual salary would be. Presumably, however, it will be more than the $117,000 Kondub was paid in 2010. Conrad's salary in New Canaan was reportedly $137,000.

Westport Republicans last fall heaped harsh criticism on the town's financial leadership and called for more professionalism. Voters seemed to hear that, giving GOP candidates three of four seats up for grabs on the finance board.

In Conrad, Westport gets a career finance professional with an MBA and experience in both the private and public sectors. With 17 years at the helm of New Canaan's fiscal ship, be brings both a knowledge of Connecticut's municipal finance laws and experience working with a similar demographic that is affluent, educated and demanding of quality services.

But he will have significantly more beans to count in Westport, where the nearly $180 million municipal budget is almost 50 percent more than New Canaan's.

In Westport, the new finance director also will find:

A bigger population: 26,000, 30 percent more than to New Canaan's 19,700.

More municipal employees: 1,360 full time equivalents, about 50 percent more than New Canaan's 910.

A bigger payroll: A monthly payout of $8.75 million, 70 percent more than New Canaan's $5.1 million.

Things that are smaller in Westport include median family income -- $191,000, nearly 20 percent less than New Canaan's $232,000; and the median home price -- $974,000, about 10 percent less than New Canaan's 1.1 million.

Conrad lives in Fairfield and has passed through Westport on his way to work every day. So he knows the neighboring communities, the region and Fairfield County's regional issues.

His experience suggests he could hit the ground running. That would be a good idea for someone parachuting into a marathon that's already started.