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Town Budget Hits $63.5 Million

After four and a half hours of deliberation last night, the town budget climbed to $63.5 million. The Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee voted to recommend the restoration of $598,163. back to select departments in the town budget. However, the Board of Education's $96.4 million budget was denied a $500,000 restoration.

After the Board of Finance makes cuts to a proposed town or education budget, the RTM Finance Committee may recommend some or all of the funds be restored up to the levels the affected departments initially requested. The recommendation made last night will go before the full RTM on May 3, 4 and 5. Acceptance of the committee's recommendation will require 70 percent of the 36-member RTM's approval.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff requested the RTM Finance Committee restore $1.23 million to the town budget. He suggested a $1 million reduction in the pension fund payments to cover his restoration request. He said a small reduction in payments might not harm the pension fund in the short term and could allow the town to maintain services without raising taxes. “I'm not going to be the one to fully fund the pension account this year and negatively impact the services,” said Joseloff.

RTM Finance Committee Chairman Michael Rea disagreed with not paying the full contribution to the pension fund. Poor performance in the financial markets, increased retirements or setting a precedent for continued underfunding of the pension plan could all result in the fund dipping too low to meet pension payments in the future, he said. The town would then be required to return the fund to a serviceable level which could result in a significant future tax spike. “I'm not ready to take $1 million and gamble that it is going to be there when we need it,” said Rea. He pledged to vote "no" to every restoration in the town budget. His first opportunity came with the RTM's own request for a $7,540 restoration of funds to their budget. The request was denied.

Finance Director John Kondub's appeal for $500,000 to be returned to the Capital and Non-Recurring Fund for town improvements failed to gain a motion to approve. “This fund is one of the building blocks of the capital policy of this town,” said Kondub. The committee did restore $200,000 Kondub requested for the insurance line item.

The Parks and Recreation Department requested a $62,300 restoration to their budget. They targeted four line items for restoration including $41,000 for administration costs. The RTM Finance Committee took the Parks and Recreation budget as a whole and denied the restoration. However, the Registrar of Voters and elections budgets were taken by the RTM Finance Committee as one item and approved for a $36,500 restoration. Other approved restoration requests included $5,500 for the town clerk's office, $44,000 for the tax assessor and $30,000 for conservation.

Two items in the police budget were handled separately. The police general budget was granted a $73,370 restoration but they were denied a $4,000 restoration for emergency medical services. The fire department was granted a $150,000 restoration to help maintain efficiency at the stations. Joseloff had warned that failure to restore funds to the fire and police budgets would result in a reduction of public safety services. Joseloff had previously stated that his number one goal was to maintain the public safety budgets.

The audience came out in support of restoring $45,000 to the library budget to maintain Sunday hours. The library became one of the few havens for entertainment and comfort when the March storms left much of Westport without power. Committee member Allen Bomes tried to push for only a $17,000 restoration but the motion to amend failed.

The Westport Weston Health District received their requested $13,793 restoration. As a state agency the health district could have pushed for more or forced the RTM to adopt whatever budget they presented. The district is attempting to reach out to surrounding towns for membership in order to increase service area and numbers while bringing down costs for all member towns. If the RTM had denied the restoration, it would have cost the district $19,000 due to a mandatory reduction in Weston's contribution level.

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