Westport looks for ways to fill state education funding gap
WESTPORT—Due to state budgetary cuts to both the Educational Cost Sharing grant and state municipal aid, the town is looking for ways to diminish the $1,192,000 gap left by the funding reductions.
According to Town Finance Director Gary Conrad the town has already found savings of $250,000. The town is working in conjunction with Director of School Business Operations Elio Longo, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon and the Board of Education to close the gap. Regardless, Conrad said, Westporters will not see a tax increase to solve the issue. However, residents and developers could see increases in town fees.
"We are not going to pass the cut on to the taxpayer. We’re looking for efficiencies, revenue streams such as whether our services are priced right, conservation fees, Planning and Zoning fees, recreation fees, looking how departments are structured, looking at all of our energy contracts—anywhere," Conrad said.
First Selectman Jim Marpe said the state reductions have been a focal point of the monthly Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WESTCOG) meetings composed of the towns’ first selectmen and mayors. One way in which Marpe said the town could reduce the deficit while increasing revenue is to take part in service sharing endeavors with the other 18 WESTCOG towns. Currently Westport provides dispatch service to New Canaan’s Fire Department which is advantageous for both towns—Westport gets paid by New Canaan for the service and in turn, New Canaan doesn’t have to pay a full-time dispatcher salary.
Other cost saving options, which Marpe noted would yield long-term results include: the Energy Performance Contracting program, labor negotiations with the intent of reducing pension plans and other post-employment benefit plans and ceasing to publish public notices in the newspapers and move to a completely online notification system.
Town Clerk Patricia Strauss, who is also the president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, presented the state with a list of fees that have not been increased in 20 years, but the state was not able to address it.
"The town clerk’s office has not increased fees in 20 years and Patti went to the state with a list—and there were so many other issues (on the agenda for the state legislation) that they couldn’t get it into the legislative session," Conrad said.
Marpe said the state’s imposition of unfunded mandates is a cumbersome burden for the town.
"While the state takes away from our funding, they haven’t made an offsetting attempt to give us unfunded mandate relief off the bat," Marpe said.
According to Conrad, in 2015, after the town set their budget, the state reduced municipal aid by $420,000. Conrad said the state was supposed to grant $828,000 and actually gave Westport $344,000—this year they increased it to $365,000.
"The state owns property and we provide services to them (DOT facility by Sherwood Island, emergency services at Sherwood Island)," Conrad said.
"We’re supplying those services and we’re not getting paid for them. We’re seeing this as the new norm. I don’t see us getting the $828,000 level again and I see them reducing it from $365,000," Conrad added.