Monday, April 22, 2024

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Board of Finance Cuts Hit Transit, Parks & Rec

By James Lomuscio

For more than four hours tonight, Westport’s Board of Finance pored over and voted on department budgets comprising First Selectman Jim Marpe’s $76.5 million municipal budget proposed for 2019-20.

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Board of Finance members tonight listen to department heads. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

While some departments like Health and Human Services, Wakeman Town Farm, Railroad Parking, Westport Library, even Police and Fire, seemed to sail through unscathed, others were taken to task with reductions.

The Westport Transit District (WTD), for years a perennial whipping boy at these budget sessions, was the hardest hit.  It got a whopping $115,000 cut from its proposed $355,000 budget, a decrease of $3,300 over the current year.

The vote was 6 to 1, with finance board Vice Chairman Michael Rea being the lone dissenter.

Brian Stern, finance board chairman, made the motion for the cut. He said it was predicated on decreased ridership, and that perhaps the bus service to the Saugatuck train station could be wound down except for the handicapped and infirm.

“I do think it’s a significant service to our town,” countered Martin Fox, co-chairman of WTD, which is operated by the Norwalk Transit District. “We have to look at it from more than just a cost accounting standpoint.”

Peter Gold, who serves on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and is chairman of the RTM Transit Committee, argued that the town plan of conservation and development (POCD), the Main to Train initiative and the Saugatuck Transit Oriented District (TOD) all support not only having bus service but increasing it.

Gold said the finance board’s charge is “to spend money for the town to reach it priorities, and one of the priorities is transit.”

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Department heads wait their turn at tonight’s Board of Finance session.  (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Of the $22 operating cost per ride, only $6 is paid by the town, the rest coming from the state.

“I understand the need to save money, but as long as the state is giving us the money, I think we should take advantage of it,’ Gold said.

The Parks and Recreation Department’s proposed $6,397,379 budget, an increase of $205, 604, a 3.32 percent jump, was reduced by $100,000.

Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Fava was repeatedly taken to task by finance board member James Westphal over the fact that “the budget has gone up 5 percent per year over the past five years.”

At the same time costs have gone up, Parks & Rec which has historically funded itself via fees, beach and hand passes, saw revenues drop, $1.1 million this past year.

Increased beach fees, limiting out-of-town beach passes, and last year’s rainy summer that affected beach and golf attendance were cited as causes.

Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich saw his $10,679,334 proposed budget, a $508,926 increase, reduced by only $40,000 by a unanimous vote.

The biggest challenge for the department, finance board members said, has been an increase in transport fees from the transfer station.

Ratkiewich agreed with some finance board members that to offset cost hikes, the town may have to institute an annual fee for residents and residential haulers to bring their garbage to the transfer station.

Bill Harmer, Westport Library director, did not have to wait for the finance board to make cuts to his proposed $5,085,375 budget, an increase of $213,672, 4.39 percent.

He came prepared with his own $100,000 reduction based on attrition and staff cuts. His budget was unanimously approved.

Departments that sustained cuts can return to the Board of Finance to seek restorations on Wednesday, April 3. The RTM will have the final say on restorations.

At the meeting’s outset, Stern said his main objective is to send to the RTM a well-wrought, responsible budget that “gives us a flat mill rate” to keep taxes low.

“Hopefully, that will happen,” he said when the mill rate is set on May 23.

On Thursday night, the Board of Finance is scheduled to tackle the Board of Education’s proposed $118.5 million budget, which represents a 2 percent increase.

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