Schools' deficit haunts RTM as downtown maintenance fund wins OK
Published 7:00 am, Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Members of the Representative Town Meeting were told Tuesday night to wait on the outcome of an investigation into a $2 million shortfall in the school district budget before delving into the recently disclosed problem.
Two RTM members, however, expressed concern that accounting mistakes by school administrators might not get proper scrutiny without an independent investigation. Earlier in the week, the Board of Education set up its own committee to look into the cause of the deficit reported last month in the school district's health insurance fund.
Meanwhile, in an otherwise brief meeting Tuesday, the RTM gave unanimous approval to a $497,000 appropriation, to be reimbursed by a state grant to the Department of Public Works, for a range of downtown improvements.
The project will include sidewalk repairs, installation of new street lighting and construction of a new sidewalk running along Imperial Avenue from Thomas Road to Gault Avenue.
Steve Edwards, the DPW director, said the grant money is limited to specific work and cannot be used for any streetscape enhancements or for planting of trees.
"It's not an open checkbook," he said. "It's a list of items that have been identified ... The state approved these items."
Edwards said when he applied for the grant through the state Department of Housing, the point was to direct funding for maintenance and not aesthetic work.
"The intent is to get something that is not going to be controversial from the point of view of what the overall town is going to look like over the next 20 years," he said, referring to other plans under review regarding the future of Westport's downtown.
"The trees are not part of this program," Edwards said.
Removal of most trees along lower Main Street in 2012 sparked controversy that even spilled over into last fall's municipal election campaign.
However, Edwards added, he plans to begin replacing trees along Main Street this spring as a parallel project to the state-funded maintenance work.
"While I'm down there we will be replacing trees," he said. "That is a high priority."
Other sidewalk repairs will include portions of Myrtle Avenue, as well as the stretch of Main Street leading to the stores at the intersection of Canal Street.
"The curbing has deteriorated to the point where we have severe trip hazards," he said, explaining those problems need to be repaired before they become a liability issue.
School budget deficit probe
Meanwhile, members of the RTM's Finance Committee informally discussed developments relating to the recent discovery of the $2 million shortfall in the 2013-14 education budget. Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon told the Board of Education that this year's deficit is likely to force a 2 percent spike in spending in the budget he plans to propose for 2014-15, in addition to other higher costs he envisions.
"There's really been no concern of malfeasance at this point," Jeffrey Wieser, District 4, who heads the committee, told colleagues about the deficit.
"It's a very fluid situation," he said. "They think it was mostly medical claims, but there might be other contributing factors."
"I'm wondering if the RTM has just been short-circuited, or if we will have the opportunity to ask questions," said Wendy Batteau, District 8.
"It's a pretty provocative situation," she said, "including the makeup of the self-examination committee and I suspect people have some thoughts about it."
"I'm very pleased that Wendy brought up this particular point," said member Don Bergmann, District 1.
"This is a very important issue," he said of the deficit investigation. "I feel very strongly that it should be assessed by an independent body."
Bergmann said it would be a "disservice to the public ... not to highlight the fact that tomorrow evening the Board of Finance will be meeting to discuss whether to retain" an independent firm to conduct an analysis.