Westport Library Sundays are saved
Budget talks continue to next week
While monetary restoration was granted by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) to keep the library open on Sundays and save a job in the Public Works Department, numerous attempts at restoration for the schools, fire department, police department and others were ultimately shot down by the town council Wednesday night.
After three days of discussion, the RTM decided that the final word on the 2010--11 budget will be had on Monday night.
"This is my ninth year on the RTM," said Judy Starr, district 1, on Tuesday, the second night of deliberation. "I don't remember any budget this bad, this painful."
The one decision that seemed easiest to make was to restore $45,000 that was cut by the Board of Finance last month in order to ensure that the library will be open every Sunday. After a who's who of Westport residents made their case, the motion passed 33-1 on Wednesday to enthusiastic applause. Starr was the lone opponent.
"The Board of Finance is bottom-line oriented ... but I think the RTM has a broader function," said retired federal judge Alan Nevas, who was once chairman of the Board of Finance. "The RTM is more people-oriented. They have to think beyond the numbers."
He urged them to think with their hearts and not their minds, and that's exactly the RTM did.
Some of the speakers included Julie Belaga, Westport's former state representative and once a gubernatorial candidate, who spoke to the importance of the library, and Frank Deford, a writer for Sports Illustrated and commentator for National Public Radio (Deford also contributes to the Westport News). Library supporters even used the late Paul Newman, referred to only as "Butch," from his role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to strengthen their argument.
Earlier that evening, an engineering position at the Public Works Department was restored, bringing the total amount of money added to the original $62.1 million budget to $121,000.
The railroad parking fund also received $46,500. The fund is separate from the town budget and does not affect the tax rate.
On Tuesday, nothing was added to the $96.1 million school budget, which was finalized that night.
"I think we'll be just fine," said Gene Seidman, district 4, addressing concerns over the effect that the budget might have on the schools. "I think our kids will be just fine."
In order for restoration to have been granted, 70 percent of the votes were needed. Two motions were made Tuesday night: one to restore the full $500,000 that had been cut by the Board of Finance earlier this year and the other to restore $250,000. The former failed 4 votes to 31. The latter failed 9 to 25. The budget as originally presented was finally approved 34 votes to 1.
"We have to avoid a steady erosion to the education services we provide," said Don O'Day, chairman of the Board of Education, when he asked for a full restoration at the start of the meeting. "There are some folks sitting in some pretty crowded classes, especially at Staples. A $500,000 cut will affect them."
How exactly the schools will be affected has yet to be determined by Elliott Landon, superintendent of schools, and his administration.
The importance of the schools not just to the education of youths, but in making Westport an attractive place to live, was considered as the RTM weighed the decision for three hours.
"I think that's certainly one of the reasons [people move to Westport] ...but people aren't going to be moving here when our tax rates begin to go up and Westport begins to look like Westchester in terms of taxes," said Amy Ancel, district 3. "I think we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot if we don't start pulling back [our expenses]."
Michael Rea, district 8, echoed Ancel's sentiments.
"We cannot keep growing exponentially the way we've been growing, both on the Board of Ed [budget] and the selectmen's [budget]," he said.
At the start of the Tuesday meeting, about 30 people were in attendance, including several students. J.J. Mathewson, a sophomore at Staples, mentioned how he went to China with other students and couldn't help but notice the rigorous and advanced education system that he feels that Americans have to compete with.
"Students may find themselves at a disadvantage [if the cuts are made]," he said.
After various RTM members spoke, mostly in opposition to any restoration, John McCarthy, district 9, urged anyone concerned about the budget process to do something about it.
"If you care about it, stop throwing things at the TV and join us next time there's an RTM election," he said.