Thursday, February 13, 2014
Scrutinizing Transit, Pensions and a Select Job
By James Lomuscio
Highlights of Westport’s Board of Finance informal workshop tonight on the proposed 2014-15 $78.5 million municipal budget included a more than 20 percent planned increase in the town’s pension and OPEB obligations, a 38.1 percent jump in the selectman’s budget to hire an operations manager, and a 3 percent increase in the Westport Transit District’s operating budget.
Though the Transit District’s proposed increase to the town’s contribution to the overall state subsidized bus service of $1.2 million was comparatively small —from $275,845 to $284,120—it received the lion’s share of attention from the finance board. In 2013 and 2012, the board had reduced the transit budget only to have the cuts restored by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
Eugene Cederbaum and Jennifer Johnson, co-directors of the appointed Westport Transit District, fielded myriad questions about bus ridership, the possibility of combining routes, fare increases to offset costs and the riders themselves, from commuters to seniors and the disabled to students going to after school events.
“What our budget represents is really the cost of running the system,” said Johnson.
Finance board member Janis Collins seemed to remain focused on the number of riders to justify the cost.
“We need some breakdown of what the ridership is,” said Collins, “and if we should combine some routes.”
“I don’t know if this (Board of Finance) is the body to make the recommendation,” Cederbaum responded.
“This is the body that approves the budget,” Collins shot back.
First Selectman Jim Marpe said that he was “fully disappointed” with the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA), which he said after two years has not yet delivered a study on the bus ridership along different routes.
“Frankly, it’s the same old, same old data we’re going to hash around,” Marpe said.
Conversely, the finance board spent less time poring over a planned 38.1 percent jump in selectman’s budget, $264,084 to $362,175.
It is the largest proposed increase in the budget’s General Government listing. The bulk of the increase is due to a $90,000 request to hire an operations director who will report to Marpe and work with department heads to lower town costs or increase revenues.
According to Marpe, the director will assist him “in the planning, coordination and administration of all municipal operations,” as well as “supplement the economic development initiatives that result from various planning activities.”
Marpe noted that the director would also support Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury, who is also the town’s director of emergency management, in “post-emergency grant and aid operations.”
“That frees my time to do some of the operational management,” said Marpe.
“I think it’s a good concept,” said Lee Caney, a Democrat freshman finance board member.
Finance board member Tom Lasersohn, Republican, seemed supportive, noting that the job of the first selectman is so involved, “You want to say, ‘I don’t have time to do a deep dive on this.’ “
Michael Rea, another Republican finance board member, agreed, saying that a director’s position would free the first selectman to have greater access to the electorate, ensuring he “does not run out of steam.”
“If you’re supportive, I’d like to get this project moving,” Marpe said, adding that he wants to form a search committee consisting of two Democrats and two Republicans.
Shortly after he had been elected in November, Marpe hired Bob Zappi, his campaign manager and former head of the Republican Town Committee, as operations director with an annual salary of $125,000. After public criticism that the post was political patronage, Zappi resigned.
In other matters, Finance Director Gary Conrad presented total pension increases including OPEB (other post employment benefits) jumping from $14,652,541 to $17,422,025, an increase to help the town grapple with long term pension liabilities.
Increasing municipal retirement costs have been the focus of budget discussions and union negotiations for several years.
Under former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, the town instituted defined contribution plans for newly hired nonunion personnel, replacing defined benefit plans. The issue will be the subject of union pension plan negotiations as current contracts expire this year and in future years.
Marpe’s proposed budget, still subject to tweaking before it is formally voted on by the Board of Finance next month, represents a 3.1 percent increase over the current year.