RTM restores transit cut in OKing $79M town budget
The Representative Town Meeting on Monday night unanimously approved a $78,923,221 town budget for 2015-16, a 2.51 percent increase over current spending.
On Tuesday night, the RTM is scheduled to take up the Board of Education's 2015-16 budget of about $111 million. The session gets underway at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.
The town-side budget includes the restoration of $37,714 to the Westport Transit District's budget, which was cut in a 4-3 vote by the Board of Finance several weeks ago.
Of that amount, $20,000 is earmarked for marketing and $17,741 as Westport's share of a new Norwalk Transit District position, which would be focused part-time on marketing and planning efforts for Westport.
"These additional funds are intended to fund opportunities to increase ridership, in part by marketing the use of a new app to allow users to know when they can expect a bus, and partly to support professional transit planning," First Selectman Jim Marpe said at the start of the more than four-hour session legislative session.
"If restored, I believe it will be important to establish metrics that measure the success of these and other initiatives covered by these additional funds in anticipation of the same funding concerns next year," he added.
The transit district funding was the only cut that had been made to Marpe's budget proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1.
"This year's budget is the least controversial since I've been on the board," said finance Chairman John Pincavage. He said the board reduced the transit district budget, but didn't "wholesale cut it."
One of the reasons, he said, was that the transit district "never made it clear what this (part-time) person would be doing. If that had been answered" to the board's satisfaction, there might not have been any reduction, he said.
But Eugene Cederbaum, transit district co-director, said the agency had provided the finance board with specifics. "A job description was prepared and given to the Board of Finance," he said. "There are seven specific responsibilities.
Finance member Michael Rea said he voted against the cuts and supported restoring them and RTM member Jeffrey Wieser, District 4, chairman of the RTM's Finance Committee, said the committee voted 6-1 to restore them.
There was some discussion from the audience with Melissa Kane, the chairwoman of the Downtown Steering Committee, and Steve Desloge, chairman of the Downtown Merchants Association, both speaking in support of the restoration saying bus transportation is important for the downtown area.
"In order to grow transit, you have to support it," Kane said. "It relates to the downtown master plan," she added. "One part is mobility and that's directly related to transportation."
"You need branding, marketing," said RTM member Liz Milwe, District 1.
RTM member Clarissa Moore, District 4, said she felt it would be difficult to persuade commuters and those who regularly drive to take the bus. "But I'm prepared to vote for it (the restoration) as long as we have accountability."
RTM Seth Braunstein, District 5, said that "we are spending a lot of time on a little money."
The vote was unanimous to restore the transit funds.
A motion also debated was proposed by RTM member John Suggs, District 5, to trim the Westport Library's budget by $15,000 to pay for damages caused to Golden Shadows, a town-owned house on the Baron's South property, where library supplies have been stored. "It's being used as a storage warehouse," he added.
Resident Morely Boyd said he toured the house with a licensed structural engineer from Westport and there are concerns about structural damage that could possibly cause the living room floor to collapse under the weight of the books. The books, he noted, are piled about 5 feet high.
He also said storing books there "is illegal under our zoning regulations."
RTM member Rick Weber, District 9, said the budget meeting "should not be hijacked" by the matter. "We should deal with it at another time," he said.
RTM member Velma Heller said that "taking the money" from the library "doesn't solve the problem" and recommended defeating the motion, which the RTM did by voting 32 opposed, one (Suggs) in favor and one abstention.
During discussion of the Police Department's $8.6 million budget, RTM member Kristan Hamlin, District 4, questioned overtime pay. "Ours is disproportionately high compared with other towns," she said. She also said, "We have a very high head count" as far as the number of police personnel is concerned. "Normally that would mean that overtime would be down," she said. She asked that the Board of Finance focus on this matter in the next year's budget sessions.
"I'd like to cut it by $500,000 next year," she said.
Wieser said that he anticipates a "minimal increase" in the town's current 17.94-mill tax rate when the final budget package is approved, and Pincavage agreed.