Westport RTM restores transit money, approves $218.6M budget

File photo of one of the buses offered through the Westport Transit District.

File photo of one of the buses offered through the Westport Transit District.

File photo / File photo

WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting restored money to the transit district before unanimously adopting the budget this week.

The full $218.6 million budget is $5.6 million more than the current year. It includes about $77.2 million for the town and $135.4 million for schools, once debt service and other expenses are added to the Board of Education’s $125.6 million budget.

The budget adopted by the RTM is generally unchanged from what was approved by the finance board, though the RTM did restore $157,000 for the transit district.

“These services are desired and appreciated by Westporters,” said Peter Gold, a District 5 member.

“Transit services are public services,” not a business and needed to be available for those who need it, he said, saying the cost per ride will go down as the district unveils more of its new initiatives to help increase ridership.

Acting moderator Jeff Wieser said the RTM had received a number of emails supporting restoring the $157,000 to the transit district before the vote.

The board of finance had cut the amount from the transit district in its budget but continued to fund the door-to-door service, which offers rides for seniors and residents with disabilities.

“From the Board of Finance’s perspective, the cost per ride is extraordinarily high,” about $80 per ride based on current ridership and costs, Board of Finance member James Foster told the RTM. “It just feels that’s not the right cost-value relationship.”

Foster said it was time to rethink how public transportation is offered in town.

“Public transportation is vital to our success as a town going forward but we have to approach it in a different fashion,” he said.

The finance board had also cut the schools’ request by about $1.3 million, though some of the decrease is because of changes in health care costs. The actual cut is about $975,000, but still an overall increase to the school budget of about $3.97 million, or 3 percent.

School officials said they plan to use federal grants to cover the bulk of the cut, and asked the finance board to restore $235,000 to help close the gap, but the finance board left the figure there, assuring the district they would cover unexpected costs that came up.

While the RTM overwhelmingly supported the school budget, member Kristin Schneeman cautioned the other members that a portion of the increase is covered with one-time grants.

“We’re setting the bar now lower for the Board of Ed’s budget and that is in part because we are receiving a chunk of money from the federal government and that will not continue to be the case,” she said.

The grants will allow officials to remove certain one-time expenses from the operating budget, such as capital projects, and cover with the one-time funding source.