WESTPORT, Conn. He may be a practicing attorney, but for the past four years, Westport resident Ken Wirfel has been crunching numbers and shaping town budgets as a member of the Board of Finance. Come November, this Democrat hopes to win a second term on the board.
Throughout his career, Wirfel has worked as a federal prosecutor and in private practice. Wirfel and his wife have lived in town for more than 19 years. One of their two adult daughters graduted from Staples High School.
In his free time, Wirfel serves on the executive committee of the board of directors of The Jewish Home for the Elderly, a Fairfield nonprofit which serves seniors throughout Fairfield County. He's also a former chairman of the Westport Emergency Services Task Force and a former president of the Minute Man Hill Special Taxing District.
He recently took the time to answer some questions about the upcoming election. The following are his responses.
Question: What do you think the best course of action is to correct the current Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) predicament the town is faced with?
Answer: Existing retiree health care benefits are unaffordable. Our projected OPEB liabilities are based in large part on the town's share of future retiree health care costs. These health care costs will continue to grow faster than the rate of inflation. We must raise the contribution rates for health insurance plans of town employees.
Until a new contract was signed just months ago, our firefighters paid only 5 percent of their health insurance costs. As of July, 2011, our police pay 11 percent of their health insurance costs, an amount still substantially below contribution rates in private industry. Uniformed officers may retire as early as 49 years of age. Whatever amount they pay as their annual contribution to their medical plan at their retirement is the amount of their annual contribution thereafter toward their OPEB benefits, a sum fixed no matter the future cost to the town.
Q: Beyond seeking consolidation between town and school services, how would you propose the town reduce its costs while still maintaining the quality of life Westporters have come to expect?
A: Tackling our OPEB liabilities is only part of the restructuring we need to undertake. Our pension costs are also unsustainable. We must either replace our existing pension plans with more affordable, defined contribution plans or amend our existing plans to require later retirement ages and more years of service before vesting. We must also strengthen fiscal controls and establish a plan to improve financial reporting and performance.
Q: Excluding OPEB, what to you are the biggest financial issues facing the town?
A: A primary goal of the Board of Finance the last several years has been to address the growing costs of our pension and OPEB obligations while maintaining the excellence of town services and our top-rated school system, all while keeping tax increases low. We've accomplished that goal, keeping tax increases to an average of less than 2 percent per year.
But we're at the edge of a precipice. We need to ensure continued investment in critical town assets, such as our schools, parks and roads, if we are to maintain the quality of life we've all come to expect here in Westport. We'll need to prioritize these investments and find ways to fund them.
Q: Why should people vote for you?
A: I'm the only incumbent running for re-election among the five candidates. I've served since the recession hit. I've helped make the difficult decisions we, on the board, have had to make to assure the maintenance of our town services and the excellence of our school programs, all while keeping taxes low. I've been a strong advocate for fiscal discipline and oversight in town government and advocated the hiring of the town's first internal auditor to assure the tightening of financial controls. I like to think I've got both the experience and vision to help guide Westport through these challenging times.
Q: If re-elected, what would your goals be as a board member?
A: We've got a solid core of business leaders and professionals on the board. Under the leadership of our chairperson, Helen Garten, the board has helped steer Westport through a financial storm.
But the next four years are critical to Westport's financial future. Many of our pension plans and retiree health-care benefits plans will be up for negotiation and I'd like to have a seat at the table when we do that. Much of my professional career has been involved in the negotiation of agreements. If afforded the opportunity to serve again by the voters, I look forward to helping achieve more sustainable and equitable labor and pension agreements for both the citizens and employees of the town of Westport.
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