Westport considers $98.6M five-year capital plan

WESTPORT — The Board of Finance stressed the importance of prioritization as it reviews the town’s five-year capital forecast, which is $17.3 million more than the last one.

The list contains an array of investments in the town’s infrastructure, maintenance, as well as upgrades for a total of $98.6 million, up from the last five-year capital forecast of $81.3 million.

BOF Chair Brian Stern said with the Board of Education expected to present its own capital forecast of around $60 million, it would be important to prioritize due to growing costs. Between the town and schools’ forecasts the town could pay $25 million a year, he said, up from the $12 million typically paid in the capital repayment schedule.

“It would mean a balloon really, since the rates are different,” Stern said at Wednesday’s finance meeting. “The interest rates are much lower than they have previously been, so that is good news to the debt repayment.”

But he said what’s required now is to understand the impact on the debt level to take a sober view of where the town stands.

“I think it will mean there will be a need to prioritize — we do that all the time so I don’t think that’s new in terms of the process,” Stern said. “We may have to consider the timing of some of these things to the extent we’re worried about our debt limit, if we are in fact worried about it based on those figures.”

Improvements to Longshore, Baron’s South and Parker Harding Plaza were listed as three big projects to undertake as well as a continued investment in infrastructure.

BOE member Lee Caney said it’s important to note just because items are listed on the forecast it doesn’t mean the projects will certainly be done. He added refining the list between what can actually be done in five years and what may take longer will be important moving forward.

“I think they should stay on the list because they have to be on our minds and that we’re actually going to get to those eventually,” Caney said. “But if we don’t think we’re going to get them within the five years I think they should be put down in another column.”

Some BOF members said it may be important to move forward as quickly as possible due to potential impacts from the state.

“A lot of the discussions that are going on in Hartford right now seem to be re-prioritizing the use of funds that would take funds away from communities like Westport and have an impact,” BOF member Sheri Gordon said, noting a proposed “mansion tax” that could impose an annual levy on residences worth more than $430,000 in the state.

BOF member Jim Foster said the board could be more disciplined in working collaboratively with the town and BOE. He said more time should be spent on understanding the total debt and the town’s priorities.

“For me it was the discipline and making sure we’re really defining what the priorities are for the town,” Foster said.

But Stern said it was still early in the process with the BOE’s numbers coming in just this week. He added with a period of low interest rates the town should not put off its imaginative plans.

“To put the breaks on some of these long-term projects like Longshore, Parker Harding, and Baron’s South, which I’m just giving as examples, would be wrong at this point when we don’t know how the whole thing is going to flesh out,” he said.