I was pleased to see the outpouring of support for recent actions taken by the town administration to close the defined benefit pension plans to non-union employees hired after Jan. 1.

This change, which I and other Board of Finance members advocated repeatedly ever since the town's pension costs exploded two years ago, represents a first step in aligning municipal benefits packages with private sector practices. But it is just the first of a number of actions that urgently need to be taken to preserve Westport's financial integrity.

The following seven suggestions are not new -- I and others have made them before -- but they are also long overdue:

1. Cap total retiree benefits at a reasonable percentage of final compensation, as other towns do.

2. Create defined-contribution plans for retiree medical benefits to which both the town and active employees contribute.

3. Work with the schools to ensure that the town is taking advantage of all available discounts and subsidies for retiree medical care.

4. Allocate employee benefits costs to the relevant departmental budgets.

5. Satisfy the town's pension funding requirement by contributing nonessential income producing properties that can produce steady long term returns for the pension trusts.

6. Create one personnel department that reports to both the First Selectman and Superintendent of Schools and is responsible for ensuring that census data for pension and OPEB benefits and calculations are complete and accurate.

7. In anticipation of the next round of union negotiations, hold a summit of union leadership, elected officials and interested members of the public to begin now to find common ground on a more sustainable benefits package for all employees.

These steps can help us manage employee benefits costs while providing a fair deal to employees, continue the Board of Finance's recent record of keeping taxes reasonable and maintain the quality of services that Westporters deserve. But, just like the change to the non-union pension plans, each of these steps must be initiated by the first selectman. Now that the administration has shown the resolve to take long needed action, let's maintain the momentum.

Helen Garten

Westport

Helen Garten is vice chairwoman of the Westport Board of Finance. She said the opinions stated are hers, not the board's.