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Finance Board Chairman Comments on Westport Budget

WESTPORT, Conn. – The following was submitted by Avi Kaner, chairman of Westport’s Board of Finance, regarding the board’s approval of a $73.48 million town budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

During the past few years, our operating budgets were austere directly as a result of the severe economic downturn:

1) Our employees’ defined benefit plans required significant additional contributions to make up for market losses

2) Newly discovered problems with our retiree medical benefits (OPEB) required significant contributions

3) Reduced real estate activity drastically lowered our conveyance tax revenue

As a result, 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, offset by program fees, to enhance service offerings to town residents. The public safety budget has remained relatively flat due to productivity improvements.

On the pension side, I’m pleased to report that since November, three of the town’s six pension funds are shifting over to defined contribution plans for new employees. The benefit to taxpayers will take time to take hold as employees turn over in the years ahead. Additionally, the town has hired a new actuarial firm with significant municipal expertise to evaluate our pension and OPEB plans. We are looking to bid out our health insurance to find potential savings. During this short period of time, we’ve positioned Westport for a more stable financial future. This is the result of the selectman’s office and this Board of Finance working in unison to tackle the difficult challenges.

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 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 next budget review will be the schools. We’ll continue to insist on a best-in-class school system and efficient operations.

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