Monday, May 01, 2017
By James Lomuscio
Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) tonight unanimously approved a $78.39 million town budget for 2017-18 — a 2.5 percent decrease from the current year.
Passage followed five months of cost cutting efforts and fiscal uncertainty due to the state’s fiscal malaise.
The town budget, combined with the proposed Board of Education’s $113,987,346 budget set to be voted on by the RTM Tuesday night, would keep the mill rate level, said Michael Rea, vice chairman of the Board of Finance, who presented the town budget.
There was the caveat, however, that if more state cuts come in September, there could be a tax increase in the fall.
“The town stepped up and met our objectives,” said Rea. “When there’s uncertainty, families pull together, and when there’s uncertainty, communities pull together.”
True, but the final leg of this year’s budget did not go quietly into that good night after one RTM member proposed cutting $100,000 from the budget, eliminating the position of operations manager.
It resulted in charges of partisanship, a word anathema to the nonpartisan RTM.
In fact, the matter became so heated that RTM Moderator Eileen Flug had to call a five-minute recess after admonishing RTM member John Suggs to “please step away” from the podium when he refused to stop talking about “the appearance of partisanship.”
It all started when RTM member Lee Arthurs, who serves on the Democratic Town Committee (DTC), made the proposal to make the cut.
He said it was unfair that other town departments had to trim personnel while the operations manager position, vacant since Dewey Loselle resigned in November, remained funded. Allen Bomes seconded Arthurs’ motion.
First Selectman Jim Marpe, a Republican seeking a second term, is the first top official since 1995 to have such a paid position. None of the Democratic first selectmen since has had an operations manager or similar post, even though the Town Charter permits it.
Marpe said that Loselle played a critical role, especially in securing critical grants for improvements ranging from flood mitigation to downtown improvements and Saugatuck developments.
Selectman Avi Kaner, who is not seeking a second term but is serving as Marpe’s campaign manager, called the motion “a partisan-driven resolution” to the dismay of Flug.
Suggs, whose refusal to stop bringing up the word partisanship causing Flug to call a recess, said he had resigned from the DTC to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
After the meeting resumed following the break, other RTM members discussed the merits and drawback of the position. Seth Bronstein, who identified himself as an independent, said the operations manager position “very clearly enhanced the efficacy of town government.”
“If you cut this money, it’s gone,” said RTM Deputy Moderator Velma Heller. “You can’t put it in another place.”
RTM member Lyn Hogan said that the cost of the position, which amounts to $125,000 annually with benefits, “has paid for itself tenfold.”
“Grant writing is a very intensive process,” she said.
Bomes seemed to brush aside any partisan agenda, saying, “My motivation in supporting this is I’m a very cheap person. “
“If you’re going to cut a position, you should do it when it’s vacant,” he said.
In the end, the motion was defeated by a vote of 26 to 6, and the unanimous approval of the municipal budget as presented followed.
In addition, the RTM voted 30 to 2 to approve a budget of $1.6 million for Railroad Parking.
It also unanimously approved the Sewer Fund’s $4.65 million budget and had a vote of 30 to 0 with 2 abstentions approving Wakeman Town Farm’s $285,000 budget for next year.
This story has been corrected to delete that Allen Bomes is a DTC member. He is not.
Posted 05/01/17 at 11:13 PM Permalink