Westport budget outlook: No spending increases for 2011-12
As fiscal austerity continues to dominate discussion of public spending in Westport, the leaders of several key town departments told the Board of Finance at an informal workshop Monday that their pared-back budget proposals for 2011-12 anticipate little or no new funding.
"We've come in, for all purposes, absolutely flat," said Police Chief Al Fiore as he presented a budget almost identical to his department's $9.2 million budget for this year.
Fiore and Deputy Police Chief Dale Call reported that police officials have made major savings, in particular, in overtime pay after implementing a new financial management system that allows them to better track overtime. The department's requested 2011-12 overtime allocation is approximately $115,000 less than this year.
Fire Chief Christopher Ackley also requested a flat budget, with a 2011-12 allocation about the same as the Fire Department's $9 million budget for this year. Ackley told the Westport News he asked for less funding than he would like because he doubted it would be approved by the finance panel.
The department's requested 2011-12 budget would fund shifts of 15 firefighters, while Ackley said he would like to have a roster of 17.
"By the end of this fiscal year, we're probably going to suffer some reductions in services," he said. "I'm concerned it's going to jeopardize the safety of my men and the citizens of the town."
Other factors cloud the Fire Department's financial future. A proposed union contract for firefighters was rejected by the Representative Town Meeting last November; in the meantime, they continue to work under the terms of their old contract. Terms of a new contract will be decided by a state arbitration panel, which has not yet set a hearing date.
Department of Public Works officials, whose agency's spending was the third and final budget reviewed Monday night, also presented a 2011-12 spending plan mirroring the current allocation of approximately $8.3 million.
Like Ackley, Public Works Director Steve Edwards said he requested less than his preferred allocation. The public works 2011-12 budget, for instance, would pay for paving four miles of town roads, while Edwards said he would like to be able to pave 10 miles next year.
Operating under such constraints, he cautioned the Board of Finance not to cut his department's budget.
"You ask me to go and cut additional, then I'm not going to be able to do those things that I'm supposed to," he said.
Board member Brian Stern appeared receptive to Edwards' argument, indicating that the finance board may increase the DPW 2011-12 appropriation.
"I believe this is a classic example of kicking the can down the road," he said of deferring road improvements. "I think we should address that and see what reprioritization would be required to fund that."
Although not slated for discussion until Wednesday night, the town's pension fund obligations emerged as a source of debate.
"Pensions are not going to change overnight," said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. "These are long-term issues. Let's not raise anybody's hopes that by talking about pensions suddenly we're going to find $900,000 to add back to the paving budget."
But Board of Finance Chairwoman Helen Garten said the town needs to examine its pension commitments if substantial savings are to be made.
"We've been following the one [option] that's been least attractive, which is this shaving away and whittling these budgets down," she said. "We need to have sustainable benefits packages going forward."
The town has a current year required contribution to its pension funds of about $8 million. That obligation will likely rise to about $9.4 million in 2011-12, according to Finance Director John Kondub.
The three department budgets are part of Joseloff's municipal budget, which seeks about $67 million for the new fiscal year. That equates to a 3 percent increase over the current year's municipal budget.
The total town budget comprises the proposed municipal and Board of Education budgets. The two budget requests for 2011-12 total about $179 million, or about 2 percent more than current spending.
The Board of Finance will not take any votes on departmental budget requests during this week's round of workshops. The panel will vote on the town and Board of Education budgets next month, when it may exercise its authority to cut the proposed spending.