Flat mill rate feasible, finance chairman says
WESTPORT — Though it remains a big “if” contingent on potential state budget mandates — in particular a possible requirement for municipalities to take on additional teacher pension costs next year — Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern said he thought Westport could maintain the current mill rate.
First Selectman Jim Marpe officially presented his $211,862,325 budget for fiscal year 2019-20 to the finance board Wednesday night, which represents a 1.66 percent increase over the current projected budget of $208.4 million.
“We actually are not at a flat mill rate yet and I say ‘yet’ because I think we can get there,” Stern said, citing ongoing meetings with Marpe and Gary Conrad, finance director.
But he noted big budgetary surprises have come from the state in the past after municipalities have approved their budgets, so a question mark will remain as to what the final numbers will be.
“The last time it actually came after we set the tax rate,” he said.
Still, Stern said the town’s triple AAA bond rating was secure, with 10.58 percent of the current budget still held in the reserve fund, which is a pivotal part of keeping that rating high.
“I do not think we should go less than 10 percent on the unassigned fund,” he said, noting the policy is to keep it in the 9 to 11 percent range.
The finance board also heard a very short presentation from Board of Education Chairman Mark Mathias, who spoke about the $118,500,464 budget request for the schools, which represents an even 2 percent increase over the current year.
“There are a number of ways we are achieving a lower operating budget,” Mathias said, citing savings in insurance costs and headcount.
On the town side, Marpe noted, “I’m pleased to say we’ve held headcount flat and we look for opportunities to lower that headcount.”
“This is really about managing Westport’s brand,” he said, with part of the goal to maintain quality of life in order to augment economic vitality. “If we don’t have people wanting to live here, work here and spend money here,” he said, fiscal stability will be jeopardized in the long run.
Historically, he said, “90 percent of our revenues are still dependent on property taxes,” noting more revenue has been found in other places more recently.
Marpe outlined a range of initiatives that are part of the current and upcoming costs the town will need to bear, including Coleytown Middle School repairs, renovations and additions at the Westport Library and the Center for Senior Activities, respectively, as well as various parks and beaches.
Bringing CMS back on line, he said, is the number one goal in his mind, “and we’re taking action to make that happen,” he said.
He said the town and school buildings were an important part of the assets Westport holds. “We need to be paying the right kind of attention to their maintenance,” he said.
“It may be something we outsource … but that is a goal certainly of mine in the coming year,” he said.
An informal visit from state Sen. Will Haskell preceded budget talks, with finance board members taking an opportunity to state their concerns and convictions to him in regard to his freshman session in Hartford.
“We’re fundamentally wounded from an economic standpoint,” Stern said, chastising the state for having “amazing nerve” in expecting municipalities to correct its mistakes after it mismanaged pension contracts.
“They find out 20 years later they can’t live up to their obligation. ... So what do they do? They’re giving it to someone else,” he said, wondering aloud if it was even legal to do so.
Others expressed fear over new bills suggesting regionalization of some school systems, as well as other services.
“We’re willing to sacrifice and we’re willing to contribute,” said BOF member Michael Rea, but such a move would change the character of the community, he said, and ultimately impact it financially.
Haskell said he had heard from more than 2,000 people in his district opposed to the possibility.
“I don’t think it’s a dirty word,” he said of regionalization, but said he did not favor it by force.
He explained there are already examples of municipalities combining various services, as Westport is beginning to do with Fairfield for 911 dispatches.
Haskell called it “crucial” for him to receive input from the BOF members, who are dealing with the economic issues at the municipal level.
Stern said, as was customary, his board would take a few days to “digest” the proposed budget, which includes a 2.9 percent increase in general government to $6.4 million, a 2.8 percent increase in public safety to $22 million, a 5 percent increase in public works to $10.7 million, a 5.7-percent increase in human services to $1.3 million, and a 3.3 percent increase for Parks & Recreation to $6.4 million.
The BOF will meet again on Tuesday, Wednesday and — if necessary — Thursday to review details of the proposed budget.
On April 3, the public will have an opportunity to make a case for restoration of any items the BOF removed up until that point.