Members of the Board of Finance, members of the Representative Town Meeting, members of the Board of Education, Town of Westport employees, and fellow Westporters.
It is my privilege to present to you the Town of Westport budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2013. As you know, this is my eighth and last budget as Westport’s First Selectman. As in previous years, the common theme is doing more with less but maintaining our excellent services.
I don’t have to tell you about the economic environment. While it’s still tough, Westport, unlike many of its neighbors, continues to show signs of resilience. In short, we continue to be a sought after place of residence because of our schools, our cultural and recreational offerings, and our location.
Yet we face the same issues as our neighbors – increasing health costs, pension and OPEB obligations—and increasing costs to maintain our quality of life.
As I have told you repeatedly – and need you ask again? – my priority is public safety. It is ensuring that our first responders are the best trained and the best equipped as possible. And my priority is ensuring that when something does happen, we can save life and property, and, if criminals are involved, catch those who are responsible.
I only have to mention Storm Sandy, Blizzard Nemo, the Saugatuck Congregational Church fire, and the murder of a beloved resident during a robbery to remind you that Westport is not immune from natural and man-made calamities.
In this budget, as you know from our workshops, after years of cuts, I am seeking to increase our police department by one officer. This officer will work within the school system and at the same time free up other manpower to address quality of life issues – speeding, cell phone use, running red lights. In all my years in office, this has become increasingly a demand by our residents.
This budget also asks for additional funds for tree warden time and to properly maintain our trees. Not only is this an aesthetic issue – an example, the sudden removing of many trees on Main Street under circumstances that are still murky to me – but it’s a safety one.
Just last week, a school bus with 15 or 20 students aboard was trapped by a falling tree on Burr School Road. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But this road and nearby ones have experienced numerous falling trees in recent storms. In March 2010, a woman was killed on Park Lane by a falling tree. The reality is that a Westporter is more likely to be injured by a falling tree – or a speeding or distracted driver for that matter—than an armed intruder in a public space.
We can no longer look the other way and not recognize that we need to begin to manage our urban forest. We now have an active Tree Board that is investigating best practices for a community of our size. What we have found out is that we are woefully behind some of our neighbors in addressing this issue. Frankly, I don’t want it on my conscience that we knew about this problem but did not do anything about it. I hope you don’t either.
Another area where I am requesting more funding is in Information Technology. We’ve known for quite a while that we’ve been understaffed in this area. And it was a member of this board who urged us this year to address this matter. The additional funds will allow us to engage contract work to keep us current. There are opportunities for cost savings through technology. But we need the worker ability to take advantage of these opportunities.
Looking at cost-saving outsourcing for other tasks is ongoing. We are looking at everything from maintenance issues in Parks & Rec to certain other administrative functions within town offices. Where it makes sense, we will do it.
We will continue to take advantage of market conditions to reduce our debt. Debt service for the town has decreased $260,000 due to pay-down of principal and refunding opportunities exercised in July of this year.
Since 1999, the town has conducted six refundings, realizing a net present value savings of about $4.5 million and budgetary savings of $5 million. This refunding will increase these numbers to $8 million and $8.7 million respectively.
Another refunding will be done in July. It is not reflected in this budget but could yield savings of $400,000 in the first year.
Let’s look at the big picture. The overall town budget increase is about 2.5 percent with the total budget requested at $75.6 million. It includes raising the annual contribution to the Capital and Non-Recurring fund from $500,000 to $1 million. As you know, this fund helps us smooth out the impact of capital expenditures and needs to be replenished regularly.
Pension and OPEB expense is up slightly more than 1 percent as a result of lowering the assumed rate of return on our investments to 6.125 percent for both plans. The full impact of the change was softened by favorable returns that bolstered the value of assets held in the trusts.
As I have said, we are well off compared to other municipalities and the state as to current funding of our pensions and OPEB. But Westport in future years also will face increasing costs in this regard. Funds to continue to meet our retirement obligations will either come from increased efficiencies, cutting back services, or raising taxes. The challenges will be great and those elected to public office will have their work cut out for them.
Turning to revenues, the good news is that our grand list is up – close to 1.5 percent. When I meet with fellow area mayors and first selectmen, they are amazed by this figure. But the good news is balanced by state government’s proposal to adjust the automobile tax. While I think there is only a slight chance of passage, be aware that should the governor’s plan go though next year, it could mean a loss of $4.5 million in revenue for Westport.
Projections of state funding in this budget remain in line with prior budgets and with proposed changes in the governor’s budget. Funding under his budget would shift from PILOT funds (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to Educational Cost
Sharing and state aid for highways. We are looking at a reduction in general fund income from the state by almost $400,000.
We continue to be conservative on projecting fee and permit income. Conveyance fees have been reduced in this budget by $200,000. This reflects a return to more normal levels experienced in 2010-11 and a correction of the conveyance tax revenue estimate in the 2012-13 budget. With Westporters enthusiastically embracing single stream recycling, we are projecting this new income stream will generate $100,000 or more in revenues.
Finally, a personal note. I want to express my deep gratitude and Shelly Kassen’s to town employees and volunteers, whether they be in elected office or appointed ones, for helping us over the past eight years. We will leave the town not only on solid financial ground but a better place than when we began eight years ago. Thank you very much.]]>
Thank you Bill Vornkahl, for your decades of devoted service to your country and to Westport. This is Bill’s 42nd Memorial Day parade that he has organized. And he’s been participating for 57 years. What a record.
Bill served in the Army Signal Corps from 1952 to 1954. Bill, once again we are deeply indebted to you for this parade, the others you organize annually, and for our Veterans Day commemorations.
I’m heartened to see so many people out watching the parade and participating in it. Over the years, it’s come to be known as the Westport parade with more people marching than watching. But that’s a good thing.
We are delighted to have Buck Iannacone as the grand marshal this year. Buck is a World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Battle Star during his service. And since then he has been active in numerous Westport charities, especially the Police Athletic League.
Memorial Day in modern times has come to mean the unofficial beginning of summer, getting together with families, perhaps having a barbeque or two. But it is important to remember the real reason for Memorial Day – to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Look around this Veterans Green and you will see some of their names engraved in bronze plaques. Some family names will be familiar to longtime Westporters.
Memorial Day is also a time to pay tribute to those men and women who continue to serve our country in far off lands. It is because of them and those who have gone before that we are able to enjoy the freedom we have today.
I think it is also a time to remember those who may not have served in the military but who meant so much to Westport over the years.
Understanding the danger of naming some names and not others, there are some whose passing since the last Memorial Day are especially noteworthy.
One of them was Manny Magolis, who lived with his wife Estelle just down the street on Myrtle Avenue for many years. Not only was Manny a Purple Heart World War II veteran, he and his wife for many years took part in a peace vigil on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge in Westport’s center.
Also a tremendous loss was my good friend Gavin Anderson. Gavin, who did his military service in the British Royal Navy, delighted in this event and many others in Westport. We sorely miss him.
We lost B.V Brooks, who served in the Merchant Marine, former Police Chief Bill Stefan, Yukutiel Kuti Zeevi, who served in the Israeli military, Westport farmer James Belta, former Selectman Bill Veazie Jr., and noted architect Abe Rothenberg.
We lost Carol Bieling and then Junior Bieling. Also J. Lynn Helms, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy before later becoming federal aviation chief under President Ronald Reagan.
We lost John Arcudi, a native Westporter who was the German and Italian interpreter for Gen. George Patton during World War II.
We lost one of our oldest Westporters – Helen Faith Keene Reichert, who was 109. And we lost two teens well before their time – Tess Meisel and Bradley Helt.
So on this day, we remember them and all the others who have served their country and our town in so many ways.
Finally, as I have urged you in the past, when you see a man or woman in military uniform – currently serving or a veteran – go up to them and tell them “thank you.” It will make their day and surely yours.
Thank you for coming to this Memorial Day and I wish you a safe and healthy holiday. Thank you very much.
Members of the Board of Finance, members of the Representative Town Meeting, members of the Board of Education, Town of Westport employees, and fellow Westporters.
It is my privilege to present to you the Town of Westport budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2012. You may have not been counting, but this is my seventh as Westport’s First Selectman. It is similar to recent years in that it shares a common theme – doing more with less.
In short, it once again is an austere budget. That word austere is more commonplace in our vocabulary. Only yesterday, The New York Times reviewed a new book by political analyst Thomas Byrne Edsall. Its title: “The Age of Austerity.”
In it, Mr. Edsall argues that America has “entered a period of austerity markedly different from anything we have seen before.”
That should be no surprise to us in Westport. We and our residents have been greatly impacted, despite our reputation as a wealthy community. The obvious reason—the livelihoods of many Westporters are tied to the finance or real estate industries.
Still, there are signs of some improvement, just as there are nationally. Last week, two office buildings in Westport changed hands, one for $9 million and one for $8.5 million. These are prices likely lower than years ago. But the point is some are seeing value in Westport real estate.
On personal property, teardowns seem to be on the upswing again. The other day a resident in the Compo Beach area sold a home for $3.4 million only to buy another in the area for just over $5 million. Of course, that is likely an exception. Home prices across the board are down. For many, these are still very difficult times.
So what does that mean for those of us responsible for governing? It means continue to look for efficiencies. It means looking for ways to continue to deliver superior services at affordable costs. It means being realistic in our budgeting and conservative in our forecasts.
Let’s look at conveyance taxes. Town Clerk Patty Strauss tells me that through February, two-thirds of the year, $840,000 has been collected in conveyance taxes this fiscal year. A year ago, we were at $1.1 million at the same point. That’s a 25 percent decrease.
But being conservative in our projections, we anticipated a drop in this revenue source. And the good news is we are on target to meet our reduced projected revenue on this line of $1.3 million for the fiscal year.
An increasingly important part of our budgeting process, like it or not, is relying on public private partnerships to fund the nice-to-haves.
A good example of this occurred today – the groundbreaking for the new Halfway House at Longshore. Here is a project funded by private donations by residents and tradesmen to build a structure for more than $200,000. Flags fly on the Ruth Steinkraus Bridge because of private donations. The Staples football field will be lit thanks to private donations.
Let’s look at some of our ongoing cost-savings and efforts to improve productivity. Department heads are doing this through utilization of overtime, part-time, and seasonal help.
Reductions will be accomplished in the Personnel Department with the elimination of the Personnel Administrator with some of the workload to be picked up by part-time help. We are also working with the Board of Education on trying to consolidate some of the work of their personnel department and ours.
The police will reduce patrol by three through attrition and cover the patrol of the railroad parking lots with current staff assigned overtime.
A note about our first responders. All Westporters know how hard pressed our police, fire and EMS personnel have been over the past year. We had leadership changes in both police and fire. And their response to the extraordinary challenges they have faced in recent months has been nothing short of amazing.
Also on the public safety front, I and members of our police and fire departments have been holding ongoing discussions with several of our neighboring communities about shared services – everything from dispatch, housing of prisoners, training, and maintenance of vehicles. We hope this will lead down the road to efficiencies and cost savings for all of us.
Last night’s RTM vote to approve Westport joining a Council of Governments for the region I hope will eventually enable municipalities in the region to also achieve greater efficiencies through shared services.
Other areas of reduction: the Parks and Recreation Maintenance Division will eliminate a Grounds Specialist and cover that workload with seasonal and part-time help. The Golf Maintenance Division will reduce a .75 full-time equivalent driver/laborer and perform the duties with seasonal and overtime for current employees.
Let’s look at some more of the challenges in putting together this budget. Higher energy costs resulted in increases of approximately 33 percent in heating oil and diesel fuel, a negative impact of $100,000 on the town’s side of the budget.
We had insurance increases in Liability and Workers Compensation of 15 percent and 5 percent respectively. We are working with our insurance carrier to see if these can be reduced. The reinsurance market is increasing as a result of the catastrophes Tropical Storm Irene and Storm Alfred that hit the Northeast last year.
We are looking to offset some of the increase by increasing the Stop Loss amount from $175,000 to $225,000 and to reduce workers compensation claims by utilizing Safety Committees both at the executive and management level. We are encouraging representation of all employees in safety committee meetings. We want their direct input to management regarding safety improvements and accident prevention.
As to the Stop Loss, the Board of Education has already implemented the increase and we are awaiting a cost benefit analysis from CIRMA and USI before making our decision to increase the Stop Loss.
Getting to some of the 2012-13 number specifics. The majority of departments submitted flat budgets. This was in response to my directive for controlling costs and offsetting those expenses that are out of our control—such things as health care and energy.
The total town increase in spending of $2,204,007 represents a 3.08 percent increase over the 2011-2012 budget. The major increases include a $777,000 increase in road repairs, transfers to the Capital and Non Recurring in the amount of $500,000 and an $114,000 transfer to the Sewer Fund, $175,000 for police and fire vehicle replacement and $500,000 in additional health and wage increases.
I hope you and the RTM will be especially supportive of the road repairs increase. As you know, this is an area where we have cut back so much in recent years. Only multiple years of double digit increases on this line will get us back to where we need to be. Neglecting our infrastructure needs, whether it is roads or buildings, is a recipe for disaster.
When combining the municipal and the Board of Education budget request, the overall budget request is 2.37 percent over the prior year.
Of course, personnel costs – including pension and OPEB expenses – continue to be another driver of the increases. What have we done in this regard? The town has made substantial changes in personnel benefits. We have closed the Defined Contribution Plans for the Non-Union Supervisory and Non Union Non-Supervisory Pension Plans to new entrants effective Jan. 1, 2012.
All newly hired employees under these two groups will be covered by a new 401k Defined Contribution Plan.
The firefighters and the municipal employee union contracts we have in place will expire at the end of the 2012-2013 budget cycle and negotiations with the police union are set to begin with the expiration of that contract on June 30, 2012.
We have two open contracts, the Public Works contract which expired on June 30, 2009 has gone to arbitration and we should hear the results by the end of this month. At that time, we will open negotiations on a new contract since the contract in arbitration will expire on June 30, 2012.
The Municipal Employees union contract expired on June 30, 2011 and continues to be negotiated. We have a new union representing 15 town supervisors and we will be negotiating with that unit.
As you know, we have a new actuary firm that is helping us get a handle on not only on valuations and liabilities but we expect they will also be helpful in better managing costs such as health care.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the hard work and recent retirement of John Kondub as finance director. And also the recent hiring of Gary Conrad as his successor who has hit the ground running. There is also another retirement that I want to note – that of Paula Castiglia in our Finance Department. She has been instrumental in the efficient day-to-day running of that department. Thank you, Paula.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank all town employees, especially our hard working department heads, who see to it that we are doing our best to provide not only efficient services, but services with a smile.
In sum, with our top notch schools, our first class senior center, our arts institutions, our beautiful beaches and parks, and our convenient location to New York, Westport remains one of the most attractive U.S. communities to live in. I thank you for your support in helping keep it that way – despite this so-called “Age of Austerity.”]]>
Members of the Board of Finance, members of the Representative Town Meeting, members of the Board of Education, and fellow Westporters, it is my pleasure and privilege to present to you the Town of Westport budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011.
This budget message is my sixth as Westport’s first selectman and one of the toughest. I won’t go into many of the operating details we have previously talked about in our workshops last week and in the new People’s Budget Workshop in January.
Suffice to say, we have made many operational improvements across all departments. These have made us more efficient and productive. The Munis accounting system, for example, now gives us a more accurate way of tracking overtime and we are able to budget better accordingly.
I thought about merely reading from my budget message from last year. But I’ll spare you of that, except for a couple of excerpts:
I said then that “Westporters are being called on to make some very difficult choices, choices that could well decide how Westport will fare not this year but for many years down the road.” That was certainly true then and maybe more so now.
I also said: “While there are many out of work and we are all doing with less, we are at last beginning to see signs of stabilization. Indeed, we are even seeing some faint signs of recovery.”
Indeed. I think even the most pessimistic among us by now acknowledges that we are on the road to improvement. Yes, we can say – and many do – but we don’t know if it will last. We don’t—but we are planning cautiously that it will.
And yes, these are still times of sacrifices. Not to belabor the obvious, however, my job – and yours representing the people of Westport – is to find the right balance.
Unlike private industry, municipalities have life and death responsibilities. Cut back on police or firefighters, or the workforce that plows our roads, and the consequences literally can be deadly.
No 911 caller wants to be told that their emergency has four or five other emergencies ahead of them, so please stay on the line. No one wants to see their local firehouse closed – whether it is Greens Farms or Coleytown.
If any of you are in doubt – and believe it or not, despite my repeated statements such as this – some still say I have not made clear my priorities. So let me repeat once again—my priority is public safety and keeping Westporters safe.
So I reject the notion that we need to be less safe – and cut our public safety personnel—because state or federal lawmakers are taking a bigger bite out of our pocketbook. Let me just say it isn’t the feds or the state who respond to your 911 call.
To keep the budget manageable, all but a couple of departments have come in flat or below last year’s requested budget. We talked about this in our workshops. The only change is we now have some details of Governor Malloy’s budget proposals.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that we will share in some of the increased taxes. We may get a small percentage of an increased sales tax. And we may get a slightly larger share of the conveyance tax. This could amount to several million dollars by our estimates. We’ll be watching this closely as it moves through the legislature.
But the governor has also proposed cuts that will impact us – including one that could mean the loss of $100,000 in revenue to the library from elimination of a statewide library book sharing program. We and our library users are big customers of this program. It won’t be easily shut down.
The budget I am presenting tonight is unchanged from what I presented in the workshops. It calls for a 3.34 percent increase on the municipal side, virtually all of the increase attributable to pensions and healthcare costs. There is still an opportunity to do some adjustments once I get feedback from you and the public.
Combined with the requested education budget, if it remains unchanged, this is a slightly more than 2 percent budget increase for the combined budgets.
It is an austere budget – because that is the direction you gave me. But I don’t think it is a particularly responsible budget. It once again gives short shrift to our infrastructure. You heard from Public Works Director Steve Edwards how we are falling behind in road paving.
We are not replacing equipment that needs replacing. We are not funding the capital and nonrecurring fund.
And everyone knows why, as I just said. It’s what I call the newest second most expensive department in the town of Westport after education. You could call it the pension and health benefits department.
Pensions, health care and what is called in shorthand – OPEB – which stands for Other Post Employment Benefits – are taking an increasing share of tax dollars and revenue collected.
We are not alone, of course. And actually we are better off in the amount of our unfunded liabilities than the state and many communities around our state. This year, we are contributing more than $10 million to our pensions. Health costs are almost the same.
The pension contribution will fully meet what our actuaries recommend. We are putting in a $750,000 payment for OPEB, less than what is called for by the actuaries. But we hope to be able to fund more than this later in the year, depending on how revenues are going.
The RTM last night authorized a $1.2 million payment into the OPEB Trust for this fiscal year. Perhaps we can make a second payment before July 1.
Yes, there are some who are very critical of the requested OPEB amount. They say it’s too little. Believe me, I’d be the first one to fully fund the obligation. But to do so requires taking more money out of our reserves, making further cuts, or raising taxes.
I asked an RTM member after the meeting last night what would be his choice among these three. He said “raise taxes.” At the January Peoples Budget Workshop, several speakers said given these choices, they, too, would opt to raise taxes, hopefully only modestly.
It is interesting that these responses mirror a New York Times/CBS News poll this week on public unions and pensions. Asked how they would choose to reduce their state’s deficits, those polled preferred tax increases over benefit cuts for state workers by nearly two to one.
Given a list of options to reduce the deficit, 40 percent said they would increase taxes, 22 percent chose decreasing the benefits of public employees, 20 percent said they would cut financing for roads and 3 percent said they would cut financing for education.
So raising taxes slightly to fund our obligations and keep Westport as we know it certainly should be a consideration for this body. And I emphasize the word slightly.
I have been somewhat silent about exactly what we are doing to reduce pension and healthcare costs. And for good reason. Some of this is best done out of the spotlight. But I can assure you we are working hard on the issue.
As many of you know, we have only one of our four pension plans – the Public Works one – up for negotiation now. The other three are not due to expire for three and five years.
But we do have the option to make changes in the two nonunion plans. Our goal is to move to a defined contribution plan, certainly for new hires.
We will not reduce benefits for those longtime employees who have already reached their normal retirement date. But we are looking to seek a larger share of retirement costs from all employees. Effective July 1, there will higher medical costs for nonunion employees as well.
Before I close, I want to pay tribute to our town employees – and that includes those on the Board of Education side – for their perseverance in these tough times.
As someone who grew up in Westport and attended its schools, and whose children attended its schools, I know why Westport is so special. I know the role that our great schools play in attracting new residents to town and maintaining our property values.
I also know that it is the commitment of town employees who make Westport a very special place. I thank them and you for the privilege of leading Westport now and for the opportunity to make our town an even better place to live in the future.
Thank you very much.
Thank you Bill Vornkahl, 40 times over. For that’s how long Bill has been organizing these parades. And he’s participated for 55 years.
Bill served in the Army Signal Corps from 1952 to 1954. We are deeply indebted to you for this parade, the others you organize annually, and for our Veterans Day commemorations.
Once again we are gathered to pay tribute to those who fought for our country in many wars, too many wars.
This year we mark Westport’s 175th birthday. In that time we have seen major wars in which Westporters participated…ranging from the Civil War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We pay tribute to them here on Veterans Green and soon we will pay tribute to them through a statewide memorial.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has announced that a design has been approved for the new monument at Rocky Hill across from the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
It is symbolic of our times that this memorial will be paid for through private contributions. An aggressive effort to raise the roughly $1 million to $1.2 million needed to construct the memorial is under way.
It is hoped that construction can begin by Veterans’ Day. I urge all Westporters to participate in this worthy project.
As they do so, I hope they will reflect on those who continue to serve us in uniform. Yes, some of them are Westporters…or those with Westport ties.
We don’t know who they all are. But we do know some of them.
We do know they include two members of the Westport Fire Department. Lt. Thomas Richmond is in Iraq as an Army medic, and Firefighter Nicholas Marsan is in Afghanistan in the Infantry.
We know Staples grad Greg Jacobs is in Afghanistan, serving with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment, 2nd Marines. He had two previous deployments to Iraq.
We know that Jonathan Liba, a 1987 Staples grad, is in Afghanistan where he serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
We know fellow Staples grad Calvin Wauchope is back from Afghanistan where he also served in the Marines as a sergeant.
We know that Sam Goodgame, a 2007 Staples grad, is a third year cadet at West Point. He undoubtedly will see action in the future.
So don’t just think the wars we fight today are far off and don’t touch Westport. They do. Intensely. Please remember them. Please thank them in whatever ways you can.
It is fitting that this year for the first time we honor a father and son pair of grand marshals – George Marks Sr. and George Marks Jr.
They served our country in military uniforms and in the uniforms of the Westport Police Department.
We are deeply indebted for their service abroad—and especially at home.
I would be remiss if I did not note the passing of our last year’s grand marshal, Ed See.
Ed, a longtime Westport attorney who served as Town Attorney and a member of the Representative Town Meeting, was 93.
As you may recall, last year was the second time Ed served as our Memorial Day parade grand marshal. The first was in 1946.
Also in the past year, we lost another former grand marshal, Jean Plasan. She served in World War II as nurse in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
These are tough times for our country, for our state, and yes, even for Westport.
But no matter how rough the going gets for us, we should never forget that whatever we do, it is because of those who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice.
So on this Memorial Day 2010, I say Happy 175th Birthday Westport….and together let us thank those who have paid the ultimate price and continue to put their lives on the line so we can be here to celebrate.
Thank you very much.]]>
Members of the Board of Finance, members of the Representative Town Meeting, and members of the Board of Education, fellow Westporters, it is my pleasure and privilege to present to you the Town of Westport budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2010.
This is budget No. 5 for me as first selectman and perhaps the toughest one yet. Last year, I called the budget then a “gloomy one.” This year I’ll characterize the budget as an austere one and at the same time, an historic one.
It’s historic because as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Westporters are being called on to make some very difficult choices, choices that could well decide how Westport will fare not this year but for many years down the road.
Our real time view of what is happening in Westport tells us there’s no question that the economic pain continues. But while there are many out of work and we are all doing with less, we are at last beginning to see signs of stabilization. Indeed, we are even seeing some faint signs of recovery.
We feared that people could not and would not pay their property taxes. That has not happened. We feared that foreclosures would soar. There has been an increase in foreclosures but not as many as might have been expected.
So the basic question comes down to whether the economic pain is so great that we need to sacrifice those very things that make Westport such an attractive place to live, those very things that keep up our property values even in these difficult times.
Do we sacrifice those things that have made Westport so special, a place where people still come because of our top-rated schools, a place where people come for top recreation facilities, a place where people do all they can to remain in their retirement years. That is the dilemma we all face and must answer together.
Let me take a moment to praise Superintendent Elliott Landon, the Board of Education, our principals and our teachers for the work they have done in continuing to provide excellent schools for our children in these difficult times. A day does not go by that we are not reminded about how well our schools have prepared our students to be top achievers in our country. We must do all we can to maintain that excellence.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman a couple of weeks ago had a great column which he called “The Fat Lady Has Sung.” It began by citing a news item in Tracy, Calif., reporting that residents there will have to pay every time they call 911 for a medical emergency. They can sign up for a $48 voluntary fee for a year, which allows unlimited 911 calls. Or they can not sign up for the annual fee and pay $300 if they make a call for help.
Subsequently, Tracy city officials clarified that what Friedman wrote was not exactly the case. They said the $300 is only charged if a firefighter or other first responder provides medical aid on a call.
In any case, Friedman went on to quote one policy expert as saying it feels as if we are now entering a new era “where the task of government and of leadership is going to be about taking things away from people.” Added Friedman: “Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel.”
I quoted these words to the Westport Rotary Club last week. I said then and I say now, Shelly Kassen and I did not run for office in 2005 and again in 2009 to take things away from people. But the reality is that we are undergoing some much needed belt tightening and that will impact services.
This budget obviously reflects my priorities for the Town of Westport. At the top of the list is keeping our town safe. We have worked hard to improve our public safety departments and in bad times, that is more important than ever. We are also prioritizing efforts to protect our environment.
Our town and Board of Education employees are the greatest—many of them are here tonight--and I take this opportunity to salute them. Day in and day out they seek to achieve those efficiencies that enable us to deliver quality services that Westporters have come to expect at reduced cost.
We’ve made great strides introducing technology to deliver those improved services. You’ve heard me talk of the digital telephone system that is now paying off for both the town and the Board of Education. But that’s just one of many examples of introducing technology to make us more efficient.
We’ve finally got our Parks and Recreation Department online system up and running. Many of you received an e-mail this morning outlining the new online procedures. But this comes at a cost of devoting a full-time employee to overseeing it. We hope to make reductions in other areas to balance out this staffing requirement.
In our Police Department, in addition to maintaining our manpower at the authorized level after last year’s retirements, we’ve introduced the CodeRed emergency telephone notification system. It’s a modest expense but makes our town safer.
We’re introducing a program that will enable citizens to file their own police reports on minor matters—loss of a cell phone, a dented fender or door in a parking lot. We’ve made it easier for citizens to track crimes in their neighborhoods through crimereports.com.
Our Fire Department continues to be one of the finest in the nation despite severe budget constraints. We’ve improved our town fire insurance rating that hopefully will result in a slowing of insurance policy premiums for our residents. We have two of our four engine companies operating with three men instead of two, improving efficiencies and the chances of saving a life in case of a fire in your home. Our response times to emergencies continue to improve, vitally important in saving lives and property.
Our EMS staffers and volunteers are responding to more calls with improved efficiencies following some changes implemented after a months-long study—thanks to Board of Finance member Ken Wirfel who headed that task force.
Across the board in all departments we have made sacrifices and are doing more with less. Our Public Works Department, which took the biggest hit in this current year, is in for a large increase in the 2010-11 budget. But it’s not as large as it should be, or was even a week ago.
If we don’t maintain our roads on a regular schedule, the economic bump in the road will be literally something every Westporter will experience every day. We must resume funding our capital and nonrecurring fund so we can make the long range investments in fire trucks, public works vehicles, drainage improvements, maintenance of our buildings, and infrastructure needs that cannot be neglected.
I don’t have to remind you that this board a year ago decided that there would not be a tax increase despite continuing increasing costs. This year, as much as we would like to repeat that, a zero percent tax increase is not possible without further drastic reductions across the board that I believe are simply not practicable.
As 80 percent of our budget is personnel, the major cost increases are personnel related. These include contractual salary increases, and contractual health and pension costs. On health costs we are facing a more than 23 percent increase in the medical insurance line.
We are currently negotiating three labor contracts and without divulging any details, we have made very clear to the unions that today’s economic realities simply do not allow us to continue to offer the kind of salary increases and benefits we once did.
We have four pension plans and only one is up for negotiation this year—public works. As you know, we have long offered excellent pension plans for our employees, but obviously today’s economic times require major changes as we move to defined contribution plans.
While we seek changes to one pension plan this year, we’ll have to wait until 2014 and 2016 to effect changes in the three other plans.
In the current year, we are contributing about $4 million to our pensions. As you know, based on June 2009 calculations, our actuaries have recommended we essentially double that contribution to $8 million in the 2010-11 budget. To do so at that level, together with increased medical costs, would result in a double digit municipal budget increase. Clearly that is not something we can afford at the moment.
So I am recommending that we fund next year’s pension contribution at about the $5.24 million level. That’s almost a 26 percent increase over the current year. This will keep our pension funding level at among the highest of our neighboring municipalities, much better than the State of Connecticut, and allow us to maintain reserves at a prudent level.
This recommended figure is about $1 million more than we discussed in our budget workshop last week. We have chipped away at the municipal budget to find another $1 million in savings. I pushed back on department heads and came up with additional cuts. It was not easy.
As I mentioned earlier, I further cut back on the road paving budget of Public Works. I reduced our contribution slightly to the capital and nonrecurring fund. We eliminated a planner position in Parks and Rec. We eliminated two vehicle purchases for the Fire and Building Departments. We further reduced police overtime, and took some money out of the capital budget for Information Technology. But there was pain in doing all this.
Talking numbers, I am requesting an overall town and education budget of $174.8 million, a 3.88 percent increase over the current year. That’s a combination of an education budget requested increase of 2.09 percent, or $111.1 million, and a municipal increase of 7.6 percent, or $63.7 million.
In these difficult economic times, I think these numbers are realistic. They maintain our services and they go a long way to funding our obligations. To those who insist on a zero increase, I welcome your recommendations which services you want us to reduce. And make no mistake—there will be a reduction in services. If this board makes cuts that I believe are unacceptable, I will not hesitate to seek restoration from you and possibly the RTM.
To those Westporters who want to maintain Westport as we know it today and as we want it to be tomorrow, I urge you to familiarize yourself with what’s at stake here and make your views known to me, the Board of Finance and the RTM in the days ahead. We have our work cut out for us.
Thank you very much.]]>
Not only is it embarrassing to have one elected body seeking to sue another, it reduces confidence in our overall government process. That is not good.
As a 14-year member of the RTM and having served 10 years as its moderator, I am a strong supporter of that body and its hard working members. In its 60-year history, the RTM has demonstrated repeatedly that it is indeed the conscience of our community.
But that is not to say that all is perfect in how it goes about its work. That’s why the RTM has a Rules Committee and the ability to modify its procedures to meet changing needs.
Clarification of how the RTM exercises its right to review P&Z actions granted by our town charter needs to be decided here, by the representatives of Westporters, and not by some court elsewhere.
That is why I have called a meeting of the relevant parties to begin the process of clarifying how the RTM should carry out its responsibilities. Given good will on both sides, I am confident it will lead to resolution of this issue without need to resort to the courts or anyone else.
Members of the P&Z are duly elected representatives and have broad experience in handling land use issues. It is important to note that they do not dispute the RTM’s right to review some of their decisions.
They may not like it, but that is not what they are disputing. They want to have the RTM review to be carried out much like their own review of land use decisions. This is an understandable request and will likely require modification of RTM rules for these occasions.
It also may require more and lengthier RTM meetings when such reviews are carried out. If that improves the process, it should not be a problem.
So I call on both the RTM and P&Z to come together to work out procedures acceptable to both bodies. With good will on both sides, this can be done in an accelerated manner with the clear winner Westport and its residents.]]>
Good evening. I send you greetings from Shelly Kassen who is out of the country but wishes you all the best and the best for Westport.
Congratulations to those sworn in tonight as well as to those who ran for election and lost. The vibrancy and enduring nature of our democracy depends on citizen involvement. That is true in Westport and around our great country.
As I noted in my remarks to the Veterans Day ceremony in this auditorium, Westport’s 41 percent voter turnout in this election was disappointing. But hardly surprising. We can and must do better in our municipal elections.
As a journalist for many years overseas, I watched many people put their lives on the line in an effort to try to live in the kind of democracy we take for granted.
In Moscow under the ever watchful eyes and ears of the KGB, I chronicled the struggles of Solzhenitsyn, Sakaharov, Sharansky and many others seeking freedoms.
In Seoul, South Korea, I choked on tear gas in the streets as students sought to oust their corrupt leaders. In Manila, I marched with hundreds of thousands in the streets as Filipinos sought to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos.
In Bangkok, I was in the streets there as the Thai people sought to oust their military rulers. Numerous times. And in Delhi, I was in the streets in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the challenges it posed to democracy in India.
Now you know why the occasional heated Westport town meetings don’t really bother me. If Westporters take to the streets, however, my concern level will go up a notch.
So it pains me to see people here not vote. I’d like to think that most people in Westport eligible to vote did not turn out because they were generally satisfied with the way things are. True or not--those of us sworn in tonight have a tough road ahead of us.
Westport is no different than our state or our nation in facing tough times. Actually, we probably are a lot better off than most. But as much as some Westporters would like to think of us as an isolated island, we are not.
The economic tsunami that struck Wall Street and many of our major financial institutions has had repercussions on Westport. Almost 20 percent of our residents in one way or another are involved in the finance, banking, real estate, and brokerage industries.
And when Westport sneezes—let’s hope it’s not H1N1 connected—the State of Connecticut catches cold. Westport and its well to do Fairfield County neighbors are the economic engine of Connecticut. We provide almost half the tax revenue Hartford collects.
So maintaining a rich and vibrant Westport is not only in our best interests but the interests of all the citizens of Connecticut. It is my job and yours to do the best we can in this regard. And we must do it in a bipartisan manner. We are one town.
Despite tough economic times, Westport will not and cannot stand still, however. At the beginning of the 21st century, we must meet the challenges of keeping our schools No. 1. We must meet the challenges of protecting our environment. And we must meet the challenges of providing a safe community that embraces newcomers as well as our senior citizens.
Thank you Connecticut magazine for rating us No. 1 in the state in our population category and for rating Staples High School No. 1 in the state.
Our taxes are relatively modest compared to other places in Connecticut and in the region. But, that’s little solace to those struggling to make ends meet. We must keep them in mind as we maintain the quality services Westporters have come to expect.
We will continue to meet our obligations to our employees—and they are the greatest--as far as pensions and other benefits are concerned. At the same time, we will seek to negotiate labor contracts and benefits that are fair but also reflect the economic reality of our times.
We will seek out innovative ways to achieve efficiencies in delivering services. We will do that in Westport across town and school lines. And we will do that with our neighboring communities in concerted regional efforts that will benefit all our citizens.
Finally, we will continue to rely on the creativity and resourcefulness of Westporters in bettering our lives and those of our fellow Americans. We are especially grateful for those seeking to improve our environment…and for the efforts of our Green Task Force and private groups such as Green Village Initiative.
So I am excited about the challenges and opportunities ahead. I see what we are doing as setting the table--as they say in baseball--for those who will follow us in the 21st century.
We will do so while remembering the efforts of Westporters such as Ed See and Leo Nevas who helped shape Westport in the 20th century and who helped us achieve what we have today. We continue to mourn their passing. We must keep up their good work.
Among the many duties, I have as first selectman, the one that I especially relish is the opportunity to meet our young people. I try to inspire them to do their best. And I even urge them to take up the challenges of public service.
I’ll leave you tonight with the words of a letter I received last week from Isabelle Katz, a Long Lots second grader who recently came to visit me with her class. And I noted to my visitors that this was the very building where I attended second grade when it was Bedford Elementary School.
Here’s what Isabelle wrote, amid hearts and peace signs: “Dear Mayor Gordon. I am so so happy you oune. Wos it wirth it? Write back to tell me if it wos.”
Well, Isabelle, it certainly was. It was because I and all of us taking the oath of office tonight will do our best to make it worth it. We’ll do our best for you and all future Westporters. We have no higher priority. We have no greater challenge. Thank you very much.
Our connection was we both worked in Moscow for the United Press International (UPI) news agency. It was called United Press when Walter worked there in the late 1940s. It was UPI when I followed in his footsteps three decades later.
There was no doubt that the Moscow wire service connection solidified my journalistic credentials in Walter’s mind--something that became evident after CBS hired me in 1975 while in Moscow for UPI.
At CBS News, I began on the radio side, initially writing newscasts and occasional commentaries for Walter, as well as Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Ed Bradley, Roger Mudd, Charles Osgood, Douglas Edwards, and others.]]>
Good morning everyone and welcome to the 2009 Westport Memorial Day observance.
Thank you once again to parade organizer Bill Vornkahl. If I am not mistaken, this is Bill’s 39th Memorial Day parade he has organized. What a tremendous record. Let’s give Bill a warm round of applause.
And a special tribute to our grand marshal, Ed See. Ed is a World War II veteran, serving in the counterintelligence corps in the Pacific, including assignment to General Douglas McArthur’s headquarters in Manila.
For more than 60 years, Ed has been a valuable member of the Westport community, serving as a founding partner in the firm of Wake, See, Dimes & Bryniczka, and in many capacities of town service. Thank you, Ed, for all you have done for Westport and the nation.
In this age of the Internet, FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter and other means of modern communication, a small town Memorial Day parade may seem quaint and out of place to some.]]>