Tax increase set amidst potentially dire financial forecast
With a potentially grim future looming for Westport's finances, the Board of Finance voted to increase taxes in Westport by 3.05 percent, bringing the mill rate to 14.85. For a million-dollar home, the property taxes would be $14,850, or $440 more than last year.
As the board weighed its options on Thursday night, there was bipartisan agreement that if more isn't done to change the way the town operates, the budget difficulties and tax burdens will continue to grow.
"In the long and the short term, we have to stop hiring people. We have to become more productive," said board member Brian Sterns, who warned that if savings aren't made, then the town runs the risk of experiencing the extreme financial problems of towns in Westchester County and New Jersey.
"That's my warning," he said. "I don't like being a pessimist, but I think we have to be realists."
The rising costs of health insurance and other benefits were chief concerns for the board, and Sterns noted that for each dollar spent on salary this year, 50 cents goes toward benefits. In the upcoming fiscal year, that figure will burgeon to 73 cents per dollar spent on salaries.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said some Westporters are angry that so many of their tax dollars in the $173.7 million budget are being used for pension costs. The 2010--11 budget represents a 3.25 percent increase from the current year.
"We're in a dilemma in Westport. People move here for great schools and great services and none of us -- the Board of Finance, the selectmen, Representative Town Meeting members -- want to be on a shift that's just grinding down and downsizing Westport as we know it," he said.
Joseloff added, "We can cut to whatever extent we want, but at what point we say enough is enough?"
The board voted 6--1 to set the tax increase at 3.05 increase, with Charles Haberstroh the only member not voting for it. He pushed Joseloff to no avail to have him guarantee that town departments would spend less than what was actually budgeted.
"I think we're just marching into next year with the same old, same old. We're going to have a just as big if not bigger issue next year," Haberstroh said. "The administration had better be getting aggressive in terms of cutting the expenditures."
Helen Garten, chairman of the Board of Finance, agreed with Haberstroh that costs need reduced in order to keep the mounting pension and benefits costs down.
"I think next year is going to be worse unless ... we do something quickly, but I certainly want to make sure that our taxpayers are protected and they're not subjected to a surprising ... tax increase," she said.
"It is ironic that our taxes are going up at the same time our services, including public safety, are going down. The primary reason for this disparity is the retiree pension and benefit obligation," Kaner said in an e-mail after the meeting. "Having the [first] selectman finally acknowledge the problem last night was a minor victory. Now we must immediately move towards modifying our plans to make them affordable to the taxpayers in the years ahead."
Joseloff dismissed Kaner's comments as "another Republican attempt to inject negativity and partisan politics into our budget process."
"What is he talking about?" said in an e-mail. "Did Mr. Kaner not listen or read my budget message of March 3 in which I laid out in detail the problems we faced because of rising pension costs."
In the budget message Joseloff cites, he said that he had made it "very clear to the unions that today's economic realities simply do not allow us to continue to offer the kind of salary increases and benefits we once did."
There were four people in the audience Thursday night, not counting town officials and members of the press.
Micheal Rea, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting's finance committee, urged the board to keep taxes low considering the difficulties people in town are facing.
"The pain is real out there," Rea said. "Just because this auditorium isn't full doesn't mean there's isn't some real pain out there."