RTM wrestles with budget restoration requests
In the first round of the final stage of the 2010-11 budget process, hours of emotionally charged decisions by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) led to a $42,000 restoration, but the resounding response to the majority of requests for a reinstatement of cut funding was "no."
After six hours of discussion, $5,500 was restored to the town clerk's office for postage and printer costs and $36,500 was granted to the registrar of voters. Motions to restore money to the police department, assessor's office and conservation department failed to receive the 70 percent of the votes needed.
At the forefront of the discussions was the recovery of the economy, both nationally and at a local level. Proponents of budget cuts mandated by the Board of Finance earlier this year say the future is uncertain, so fiscal restraint is a necessity.
"We hear anecdotal evidence that things are improving, but given our experience so far, it's unrealistic [to think town revenues will return to the levels they were at]," said Helen Garten, chairman of the Board of Finance (BOF).
She defended the $62.9 million budget that the BOF came up with and the $1.6 million cut it made in March to reach that number. With burgeoning pension costs, an increase in health insurance and a decrease in revenues for the town, Garten said, "There's more at stake than a few hundred dollars in your tax bill."
According to calculations presented by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, if a full restoration to the budget is granted, taxes would go up an additional $128 a year.
"A safer, better Westport for $11 a month," he said.
While Garten was bearish on the prospect of recovery, Joseloff was bullish.
"Nobody is saying we are out of the woods by any means, but things are beginning to look better," he said.
With those two differing perspectives, the RTM meticulously discussed various departments.
When it came to possibly restoring a clerk's position in the Conservation Department, a couple RTM members were torn between their belief in the need for low taxes and the importance of the department.
"If we go down the road of approving all the things we personally think are right, we're going to be increasing taxes," said Matthew Mandell, District 1.
Voting no to restore the position was especially difficult for Amy Ancel, District 3.
"It is part of my soul and I wish that these cuts, particularly this one, didn't have to happen," she said, while trying to hold back tears.
Ancel told her story about the difficulties she's faced as a Realtor. She likened her life to a "bad version of the movie Groundhog Day," as she struggles to pay her mortgage.
"When people called me cry babying about the library ... and I told them what kind of tax increase they were looking at, and a lot of these were seniors, they were appalled," she said. "They were shocked. People in this town have no concept of what the real story is."
Said Michael Rea, an RTM member from District 8 who serves as chairman of the finance committee, "Before the restoration train moves out of the station, stop to think about every compelling argument that you're going to hear tonight, tomorrow and the next day and see if you can come up with the bottom line,"
"Tonight's the night to say, `no,'" he added. "There are 600 families [in Westport] that are affected by unemployment. I don't hear their voice here tonight."
In the final motions of the night, restoration of $73,000 and later, $40,000, was sought for the police department, but both those votes failed 21-13.
For RTM member Paul Rossi, District 5, his dedication to keeping spending low wavered when it came to this part of the budget.
"The reason I've taken a hardline [approach] ... I believe this all comes down to whether or not we believe the town has looked under every rock to find savings, to find cost efficiencies," he said. "The big question I have is whether or not the right people are looking for those efficiencies and I will submit to you ... that the people closest to it are not the right ones to be looking at it."
The RTM tabled to today at 7:30 p.m. in Westport Town Hall discussion on the Fire Department, Department of Public Works, Westport Public Library, Westport Weston Health District and Human Services.