Westport grapples with funding town retiree benefits
Published 1:19 pm, Thursday, January 6, 2011
Though there was support for making an even larger contribution to Westport's trust fund for retired municipal employees, the Board of Finance on Wednesday night approved a request for a $1.2 million appropriation.
Finance board member Avi Kaner cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he wanted the town to fully fund the $2.4 million annual obligation to the Other Post-Employment Benefit fund. However, the finance board could not increase the amount under town regulations, and First Selectman Gordon Joseloff was not willing to contemplate an amendment to boost the amount.
"So we can't do it," board Chairman Helen Garten said. "I agree in principle, the more we can fund, the better."
"We think this is doable," Joseloff said, adding the accounting standards board only requires that towns have a plan in place to fund the plan. "We do have a plan in place and we have a track record of contributions."
For the prior fiscal year, the town appropriated $700,000 of the recommended $2.4 million.
The OPEB fund covers the town's share of health insurance costs for retirees, both current and future, similar to pension funds. The estimated obligation at this point is about $50 million to cover all current municipal employees and retirees.
The $2.4 million annual contribution is the amount recommended by town's actuaries.
Health insurance costs are rising, Kaner said, and not fully funding the obligation means only that the gap will be bigger next year.
Finance Director John Kondub said officials in the next few months may seek approval for the remainder of the $2.4 million once they get a better handle on costs and reserve fund estimates.
"I share your inclination," board member Kenneth Wirfel said, in response to Kaner, "but I think it may be a tad premature. We need to see what the other fund balances look like so we can prioritize."
One resident suggested the town is trying to obscure an overall $50 million obligation to the fund, which both Garten and Kondub said is not true.
Local resident Bart Shuldman said the OPEB contribution should be a line item in the town's annual budget, and Garten said that it will be from now own.
"The real costs are rising, the cash costs," Shuldman said, noting the town spends about $6 million each year on retiree health claims.