RTM OKs $73.6M town-side budget, with full transit funding
Updated 10:06 am, Tuesday, May 8, 2012
The Representative Town Meeting approved in a near-unanimous vote Monday a municipal budget of approximately $73.6 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year -- a spending package that contains enough funding to maintain service levels for the town's public transit system.
The RTM on Tuesday night was expected to review -- and likely vote on -- the Board of Education's proposed $100.2 million operating budget for the new fiscal year. If that spending package is passed without changes, Westport's town budget would total, with municipal and education spending, about $188 million for the fiscal year starting July 1.
For weeks, the town's funding for the Norwalk Transit District-operated commuter shuttle network in Westport was the most contentious budget issue after the Board of Finance cut in late March $114,000 from First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed $248,000 allocation. Finance board members' contention that the shuttle system is under-used and over-subsidized by Westport taxpayers failed to sway scores of commuters who lobbied at an April 11 finance board meeting for restoration of the $114,000 reduction.
The finance panel instead voted on a compromise proposal by member John Pincavage to restore about $54,000 to the transit budget, which would have funded all of Westport's current commuter shuttle lines for nine months of the next fiscal year. Restoration of the remaining $60,000 cut, according to Pincavage's plan, would have taken place sometime during the 2012-13 fiscal year only if the transit district enacted certain finance board-endorsed measures, such as a fare increase.
Since April 11, commuters have redirected their campaign for restoration of the $60,000 -- which would have also resulted in a $180,000 loss in matching state funds -- toward RTM members. Commuters' public advocacy for the town's transit system has also contributed to Joseloff's decision to form a new citizens transit committee to study and make recommendations on Westport mass transit issues.
On Monday, RTM Transit Committee Chairwoman Cathy Talmadge, District 6, made a motion to restore all of the remaining $60,000 cut by the finance board.
"Positive momentum has been created, and the budget should be fully funded at the current level of service for the full year to harness this momentum," she said. "Give us the time to look at all the issues that have risen ... and to reduce the uncertainty and angst that commuters and employees of Norwalk Transit have faced." Talmadge's proposal quickly gathered support from RTM members, as well from some finance board members who had voted against full restoration of Joseloff's proposed $248,000 transit allocation.
"Because of the building momentum to improve system efficiency and effectiveness and financial aspects, as well as the commitment of so many people, including Cathy Talmadge, the citizens committee and Norwalk Transit, I would support the full restoration," said finance board member Janis Collins.
Continuing strong support for restoring full funding to Joseloff's proposed $248,000 allocation, a number of residents spoke to endorse Talmadge's proposal.
"People who are not quite as fortunate, either financially or with physical or other challenges or disabilities, public transportation is a necessity. It's a lifeline," said Jim Ross, who rides the S4 shuttle to the Saugatuck Metro-North train station. He is also legally blind.
"That's what binds a community together; we help those in need," he added. "You never know when you might need it. I was not legally blind five years ago, but I am now, and I realize how valuable this service is."
The RTM soon moved to unanimously approve Talmadge's proposed $60,000 restoration to the Transit District budget. That vote secures enough town and state funding for Westport to operate all of its current commuter shuttle routes for the entirety of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Proposed pension funding cut
Gilbert Nathan, a first-term member from District 9, proposed cutting $300,000 from Joseloff's proposed $9 million allocation for municipal employee pensions. Nathan recommended reducing pension expenditures by $150,000 each for current supervisory non-union employees and for their non-supervisory, non-union counterparts. He described his plan as a necessary measure to spur broader reform of town employee pension plans.
"If we make a cut here, this is a decision that the first selectman has to make," Nathan said. "I've been waiting, and I've haven't seen anything. Truthfully, this is the power of the RTM ... If we make this cut, it expedites things."
If approved by the RTM, a funding cut to the pension line would require Joseloff to formulate a pension reform measure that would create equivalent savings and then gain approval for that plan from the town's non-union, non-supervisory and non-union, supervisory employee pension boards.
In February, the RTM approved the elimination of pension plans and retiree health-care benefits, also known as Other Post-Employment Benefits, for all new non-union municipal employees. Last month, the RTM endorsed a state arbitration panel ruling that jettisoned pensions and OPEB for new Department of Public Works employees, who are union workers.
But Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner, who also serves as the chairman of both non-union pension boards, indicated his opposition to amending non-union workers' pension plans.
"We had discussions with our legal counsel, as well as other key members of the Board of Finance, and we came to the conclusion that we cannot do that" change to current employees' pension plans, he said. "We made a commitment to our existing employees that they would not be affected."
Nathan's proposal also struggled to gain support from other RTM members.
"Any time that I hear the words `cut' and `pension' in the same sentence, it's not a good thing," said Catherine Calise, District 2. "We have people who have given years and years of service to this town, for us and for the good of the community."
The RTM eventually voted 27-2, with two abstentions, to reject Nathan's proposed pension funding cut.
Nathan also made a motion to restore approximately $22,000 to the DPW road maintenance budget. The RTM voted down that proposal by a 26-4 margin.
The Board of Finance in March cut $40,000 from Public Works Director Steve Edwards' proposed $1.87 million spending plan for road maintenance next year, before restoring approximately $18,000 to that line item at its April 11 meeting. Road maintenance expenditures will, nonetheless, rise overall by about $750,000 next year, equating to an increase of about 70 percent. The overall public works budget will total about $9 million next year, an uptick of about 8 percent compared to the department's current expenditures.
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