The Board of Finance trimmed $83,000 Tuesday from First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's approximately $76 million municipal budget proposed for the next fiscal year -- a small spending cut that belied the board's scrutiny of expenditures for transit, police and other town services.
Like last year's budget hearings, Joseloff's proposed allocation for the town's public transit network attracted close attention from finance board members, who have criticized the transit district in recent years for low ridership, operational inefficiencies and excessively low fares. To address those concerns, the Westport Transit District's directors, Gene Cederbaum and Jennifer Johnson, have proposed that $23,000 of their approximately $279,000 funding request to the town be allocated for a marketing plan to raise awareness and ultimately increase ridership on the town's commuter shuttles.
"There is a demand in this community that's being met by public transit," Cederbaum told the finance board. "We honestly believe that we can create a better awareness and education and higher usage. In order to get started, we need money to put into a marketing plan."
But finance board members indicated they are unwilling to back funding for that proposal, with Michael Rea proposing instead that the $23,000 allotment for that initiative be cut from the transit district's budget.
"We shouldn't be funding marketing efforts right now," Rea said. "You need to get your feet into the job that you have. We really haven't seen any implementation of a plan and we haven't seen revenues increase."
Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner, one of the board's most vocal critics of the transit network, meanwhile proposed an approximately $30,000 funding cut to the transit district's proposed budget, which would maintain its current-year funding level next year.
"My view on this is that we keep it the same level that it was last year," Kaner said. "That is an incentive that will force the transit authority to finally decide on either having a fare or maybe some sort of consolidation."
Kaner's proposal failed by a 6-1 margin and board members instead voted 6-1 for Rea's proposed $23,000 cut. Despite that reduction, the transit district will still be able to enact a 3 percent operational budget increase next year.
Cederbaum and Johnson told the Westport News after Tuesday's meeting that transit officials have not decided whether they will ask the finance board next month to restore the funds it cut Tuesday. If the finance panel does not reverse its cut to the transit district's budget, that reduction could be reversed when the Representative Town Meeting votes in May on the municipal budget.
The transit directors added that they still want to pursue the proposed marketing efforts.
Finance members' other major debate Tuesday centered on a proposal by the Police Department to include funding in its proposed $7.8 million budget next year to hire an additional officer, which would allow the creation of a second youth officer position. Citing his concern about adding personnel, Rea proposed to cut $57,000 from the police budget, an amount that would fund a new officer's compensation.
"I'm not comfortable with it," he said. "I want to keep our headcount flat. I think our taxpayers deserve a break ... We have to scrutinize what we can."
Rea's proposal elicited a starkly divided response from colleagues. Tom Lasersohn also sided with Rea, but attributed his support for the cut to his dissatisfaction with the amount of data the finance board could draw on from the town's actuaries to assess the fiscal impact of town employees' benefits packages.
"If somebody in the public asked me, `What does this cost, are you absolutely sure? What's going to be the cost today, tomorrow, or in the next year?' I don't know the answers," Lasersohn said. "I think that as a matter of discipline we need to know this information. We need to know it absolutely."
Police Chief Dale Call said he considers hiring the new officer essential. But he also acknowledged the protracted timeframe for recruiting a qualified addition to his department's ranks.
"We've cut 12 people in the last eight years," he told the finance board. "We wouldn't come and ask for one of those back if I didn't truly believe it was necessary for us to move forward with this. But the reality is, even if I get it, it's not happening tomorrow, it's not happening in six months to a year. It takes forever."
Several finance board members expressed their confidence in Call's judgment.
"I'm not sure we can hold off another two to three years for this position because Dale has held over two or three years before," said Janis Collins. "I think we have to trust in Dale and recruit this police officer."
Joseloff also expressed backing for hiring an additional officer.
Finance board members eventually voted 4-3 to turn down Rea's proposal. Rea, Kaner and Lasersohn voted in favor of the $57,000 cut; Collins, Helen Garten, John Pincavage and Brian Stern voted against it.
The finance board also approved without changes the proposed budgets of the town's two other largest departments, Public Works and Fire. The latter department has been allotted approximately $8.5 million, while Public Works will receive about $9.3 million.
APPROVED, PROPOSED CUTS
The finance board cut $25,000 from the town's approximately $50,000 budget for primary elections, with several board members arguing that they did not expect the town to hold more than one party primary during the next year. The next town election will be held in November, featuring a contest for an open first selectman post. Joseloff is not running for re-election this year.
The finance board also cut $25,000 from the Finance Department's budget to reflect corresponding administrative savings made by that department.
In addition, finance board members subtracted $10,000 from Joseloff's proposed $95,000 allocation to Earthplace nature center. That move keeps Earthplace's town funding at its current level, as board members expressed skepticism about the impact of the proposed $10,000 increase for the nonprofit.
Several other spending reductions proposed by board members did not pass.
Stern briefly proposed cutting $70,000 from the salaries line of the Parks and Recreation Department's proposed budget of approximately $4.5 million, indicating that those reduced funds should be used instead for capital project planning at Longshore Club Park and Compo Beach. He withdrew that motion when Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy informed the board that his department plans a new master plan for Compo Beach.
Earlier in the meeting, Stern proposed a $25,000 cut to contract services in the Town Attorney's budget, as he cited a reported nationwide trend of declining legal expenses. That proposal was defeated by a 5-2 margin.
Board members voted against a proposal by Lasersohn to cut $6,500 from the Registrars of Voters Office budget, which he had suggested because he objected to a proposed midterm pay increase for the town's two registrars next year, which would raise their annual salaries by $10,000 to approximately $44,000.
The overall $83,000 cut Tuesday by the finance board comprises about 0.001 percent of Joseloff's proposed municipal budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Including that reduction, municipal expenditures would total approximately $75.6 million next year, a 2.5 percent increase compared to current spending.
The finance board will vote Thursday on the Board of Education's proposed $104.2 million budget for 2013-14. After that, the municipal and education spending plans will head to the Representative Town Meeting for final votes in early May.
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BUDGET BY THE NUMBERS
Following is a list of funding for some of the key expenditures in the 2013-14 municipal budget, which was approved Tuesday by the Board of Finance. Numbers in parentheses reflect percent spending increases over current-year levels.
Police: $7.84 million (2.2 percent)
Fire: $8.45 million (2.2 percent)
Public Works: $9.33 million (2.7 percent)
Parks and Recreation: $4.54 million (2.1 percent)
Health and Human Services: $1.02 million (1.7 percent)
Library: $4.38 million (1.7 percent)
Pensions: $14.70 million (1.1 percent)
Insurance: $10.27 million (1.5 percent)