Westporters could get better internet out of $220M town budget proposal

Photo of Katrina Koerting
First Selectman Jim Marpe addresses the Board of Finance on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in Westport, Conn.

First Selectman Jim Marpe addresses the Board of Finance on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in Westport, Conn.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Officials are considering a $220 million budget that, among other things, could make internet use better.

The proposed spending plan, which is about 3.3 percent more than the current year, includes $77.1 million for town expenses — about 2.2 percent more than the current year — and the $127 million budget the school board adopted, as well as additional education expenses that don’t fall under that.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said the town will also focus on enhancing wireless and fiber optics infrastructure with possible public, private partnerships.

“As more and more people are working from home, it’s very important to make sure it’s not just the town that has ability to have the best high speed internet, but also be sure that our residents have access to that as well,” he said

There is a caveat: Marpe noted at a recent budget presentation that the health care costs could change.

“I believe our department heads have been very diligent in trying to prepare budgets that reflect the realities of our economy, but also the realities of the service demands and all of the demands that a town like Westport expects,” Marpe said.

Marpe said some of last year’s challenges are still present, including the coronavirus, recycling costs, cybersecurity and increased demand on town services and infrastructure with more multi-family housing. There’s also the added challenge of potential changes to funding because of proposed state legislation.

“There’s some legislative items in the hopper that might have the potential to significantly impact some of the revenue prospects we’ve been counting on,” he said during a recent budget presentation.

He said the town plans to continue a number of initiatives from this year, including the shared dispatch center with Fairfield, repaving, infrastructure upgrades and the affordable housing project.

There will also be new initiatives, such as improving the Inn at Longshore, improving Riverside Park and Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum and planning for Parker Harding Plaza.

Marpe said one of the challenges will be transitioning government back post-COVID.

“We really don’t know what that looks like yet,” he said.

The town budget includes three new positions, though the additional firefighter is there as human resources resolves a contractual issue, Marpe said.

It also adds a staff member at the transfer station due to a recent audit that raised safety concerns and reinstates a parks superintendent that was taken out when the former superintendent retired a few years ago. Marpe said they had tried to split the superintendent’s tasks within the department but it didn’t work and so he’s requesting the position return.

“While I’m never excited about adding positions, I believe the ones we’re adding are justified,” he said.

Parks and recreation's overall increase is nearly $253,000, which is also due to the increase in minimum wage that affects the 300 or so seasonal employees.

The biggest increase in the budget is for insurance, pensions and benefits, which is $815,000 more than the current year and brings the total to nearly $21 million — one of the biggest portions of the overall town budget.

Public safety is the next biggest expense at $23 million, which is about $363,000 more than the the current year.

That increase includes $207,000 for fire and emergency management and $187,000 for other expenses, which Marpe said is largely due Aquarion’s charges for water to the fire hydrants.

“It’s somewhat an unexpected cost,” he said of the water. “In terms of absolute dollars, it’s not that dramatic, but in terms of percentage, it’s certainly noticeable.”

Public works has an increase of about $263,000, which Marpe said is due to infrastructure investments.

Another increase is $70,600 for information technology, largely due to the cybersecurity improvements to ensure “there’s a quality computer system that’s as bullet proof as possible from outside forces,” Marpe said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com