Proposed budget represents 3.88 increase
What Westporters want a focus
Published 1:07 am, Friday, March 5, 2010
The proposed 2010-11 budget is in and it totals $174.8 million -- a 3.88 increase from last year.
While members of the Board of Finance, who will be reviewing the budget and possibly making changes to it on March 23, questioned the workforce productivity of Westport on Wednesday after the presentation of the budget, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff believes the budget provides what taxpayers want: a modest tax increase and a continuation of top-notch services in the schools and throughout town.
"The fact of the matter is ... that people move to Westport for excellent services and it's our challenge to continue to deliver excellent services," Joseloff said. "We could deliver mediocre services and I think you'll quickly find that your property values are going to be declined. I think you're going to be finding that Westport is not an attractive place to live."
The increase in the proposed budget comes after the 2009-10 budget represented a modest .42 increase with no higher taxes amidst concerns of the financial meltdown. Joseloff believes the proposed budget would bring about a tax increase of approximately 4 to 6 percent.
In the proposal, the school budget of $111.1 million represents a 1.78 percent increase. The town portion of the budget -- $63.7 million -- represents a 7.74 increase, which caused reservations from some Board of Finance members.
"There has been a major reset in the economy and we ought to do whatever we can to keep taxes where they are now and only increase if it really is an emergency or if we can't make up the decline in revenue with an increase in productivity," said Brian Stern, a member of the Board of Finance.
He added, "My judgment is that we're not seeing the productivity that we need to see out of any enterprise."
According to Kenneth Wirfel, from 2000 to 2005, there were only five new employees. From 2005 to 2009, there were 36 new employees, with less than half of them in the fire and police departments.
"That is ... not a regular growth that we can accept given the present financial situation," Wirfel said.
He added, "There are very few salaried employees in this country other than municipal workers who are guaranteed yearly increases. The situation is changing. People would die for these jobs because they are now unemployed. We used to have a 1 percent unemployment rate in Westport and now it's over 6 [percent]."
The cost of maintaining town employees was a factor in Joseloff's decision to not fully fund the pension plan -- which has lost value over the last two years due to the volatility of the stock market -- by paying $5.24 million rather than the $8 million that town actuaries suggested.
"To do so at the level, together with increased medical costs, would result in a double digit municipal budget increase. Clearly that is not something we can afford at the moment," Joseloff said.
He said that medical insurance costs have risen 23 percent, and he has been stressing during three ongoing labor contracts that "today's economic realities simply do not allow us to continue to offer the kind of salary increases and benefits we once did."
There are four pension plans, and he said he is seeking a shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans, such as a 401(k).
"What we're funding now is prudent," Joseloff said. "I'd like to do more, but I just don't think our taxpayers will accept a massive tax increase to fully fund pensions at this time."
John Kondub, the town's finance director, said this is the first time in his memory that the pension will not be fully funded. He has been director for two years and a town employee for more than 30.
Some finance members expressed concern over the effect that not fully funding the pension might have on the town's AAA bond rating.
"It's not a gigantic pressing concern, because so many other communities in the ... whole country are facing this problem," Kondub said.
Avi Kaner, a member of the Board of Finance, honed in on the pension issue several times throughout the meeting.
"If we do not fully fund the pension obligation, it means we have a bigger hole next year that we have to fill and we'll have a bigger problem next year," Kaner said.
Throughout the meeting, Joseloff mentioned the demands and high standards that Westporters have when it comes to services.
Michael Book, an 11-year resident of Westport, echoed those sentiments and defended the budget as it currently is.
"People don't move to Westport and pay the housing prices here to get a Chevrolet ... education. They want a BMW education," Book said. "They want the best."