Guest Column / A finance board self-assessment
It has been four months since the November election. I am pleased to report that the Board of Finance is gaining traction in helping position Westport's finances for the future. We have been working closely with Gordon Joseloff and the Selectman's office to achieve our common goals. The results benefit all Westporters.
Here is what we have accomplished since this November's election:
Pensions: We have eliminated the defined benefit pension plans for three out of the six pension plans. These plans will offer only defined contribution plans going forward for new employees. It will take time for the financial benefit to be felt, as employees turn over. The net present value of the savings will be incorporated into the actuarial analyses being prepared now. The result should be a reduction of the required annual contribution.
OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits, e.g., retiree health insurance): We have restructured these benefits for two of the six pension plans for new employees. Once again, the savings will come as employees turn-over. The town has replaced the previous actuarial firm with a new highly respected firm. The previous firm had minimal municipal experience, and our plans were designed with limited best practices in mind. Mistakes were made in the calculations.
The new firm, hired after the election, and with the support of both the Board of Finance and the Selectman's office, has already hit the ground running. For example, they completed the "implied subsidy" analysis for the Board of Education retirees with finance board member Tom Lasersohn's involvement. In eight to 10 weeks, we will have an accurate assessment of each one of our plans broken down by department. We will also finally be able to compare each with other comparable municipal plans. We will use that information to reform our plans to be consistent with other similar communities. Our goal is to be fair to the employees and to the taxpayer.
Baron's South: For the first time since Westport acquired Baron's South, we now have the financial information we need to move forward. Finance board member Mike Rea worked with the selectman's office to develop a financial assessment plan for Baron's South. We hired a professional appraiser to look at myriad possible uses. The report came back last week and will be reviewed at the April 11 Board of Finance meeting.
It appraised the property in terms of value and in terms of ongoing property taxes that can be generated. Included were single family residential, various senior housing options, and commercial office space. The timing of the appraisal was designed to coincide with the Baron's South request for proposal responses. This Board of Finance is ready to make financial recommendations based on financial facts. We expect the result to be positive for the town in the short term and in the years ahead.
Budget Book: Since our election in November, we assigned major responsibilities to each board member. Board member Janis Collins, for example, was given the task of revamping our budget book. We worked closely with the Finance Department to enrich our budget book. For the first time, any resident can pick up the budget and actually understand what we're spending money on. Every department and sub-department has qualitative information explaining the expenses. We have also added summary pages that pull together the information coherently. We promised greater transparency, and we delivered.
School budget: Each year, the school system was encouraged to put health insurance out to bid. There was much expected opposition over concerns of changing networks, etc. This year it was put out to bid and the result was a $700,000 savings. (We are now pushing to do the same on the town side.) That savings, combined with a reduction in school secretaries, allowed the school board to come in with a modest increase (just over 2 percent). However, we did not stop there. Under Lasersohn's leadership, the school board agreed to consider reducing class sizes while keeping the budget as is. Our Board of Finance is pro-school, as the investment in our children is our No. 1 priority. Additionally, it helps maintain and protect our property values. Our relationship with Don O'Day, the school board chairman, and the rest of the board is non-partisan.
Town Budget: During the past few years, our operating budgets were austere directly as a result of the severe economic downturn. The town and schools were forced to prioritize projects, find productivity improvements, and cut operating budgets to minimize the tax burden. This year's budget continues to be lean, but begins to play "catch-up" in areas that were slowed down. For example, our approved budget this year includes a significant increase in road paving. Our budget also includes an increase in Parks & Recreation to enhance service offerings to town residents.
Two department heads came into the budget vote meeting with proposed cuts, ahead of the Board of Finance votes. This was directly as a result of finance members John Pincavage and Mike Rea working with them behind the scenes.
Consolidation and Efficiencies: A number of years ago, the Town had to replace its computer systems. Former finance board member (and current third selectman) Charlie Haberstroh led the charge to purchase a system that was compatible with the school system. Our quote was "there's no difference in generating a teacher's paycheck than a policeman's paycheck." Unfortunately, the town and schools still run on two different systems. This makes consolidation more difficult but not impossible. We have held meetings with the town and school side, for example, to move toward consolidation in Human Resources. Gordon Joseloff and Finance Director Gary Conrad are hiring a consultant to assess the situation on the town's side and help steer us in that direction.
Finance member Brian Stern and others have been vocal proponents of our desire for further consolidation. We will work in small groups with town and school employees to help identify and quantify opportunities for efficiencies. Ultimately the employees will detail the concepts and develop the implementation plans. During the budget session, a finance member made a motion to eliminate a position in the tax collection/assessor areas. Both department heads explained why that did not make sense. Our perspective is that we must be careful when it comes to revenue. Our assessor's office has increased our grand list by more than 1 percent this year. This amount goes directly towards reducing our tax burden -- we cannot risk losing this diligence. It would be penny smart and pound foolish. We will however explore the broader consolidation opportunity among the various departments.
Our Board of Finance has also taken some difficult measures to eliminate inefficient operations. For example, we voted to consolidate the Westport Transit commuter lines into one line running from the Imperial Avenue parking lot. The cost to maintain the shuttle network was exorbitant given the low ridership. We did, however, retain the door-to-door network providing rides to the elderly and disabled, regardless of cost. Our ultimate goal is to solve the parking problem at the train station. If we dramatically lower the waiting list, our property values will further improve as buyers choose Westport over other similar towns in Fairfield County.
Please feel free to send the finance board any comments, ideas or and questions. Email addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org will reach all seven of us. I can be reached at email@example.com.
Avi Kaner is chairman of the Westport Board of Finance.