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Monday, April 23 News

$76.6M in town spending wins unanimous RTM approval

The Representative Town Meeting on Monday night unanimously approved a $76,595,682 town budget for 2014-15, a 0.63 percent increase over current spending.

The larger share of proposed spending for the new fiscal year -- the $110.32 million Board of Education budget -- faces an RTM vote at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall.

That amount includes the operating costs for the library, town-related services, health-care benefits for all town employees and the costs of funding the pension and OPEB (other post-employment benefits) trusts, First Selectman Jim Marpe told RTM members in his budget presentation in the Town Hall auditorium.

The majority of the departmental expense increase is primarily in the area of public safety, which shows an overall increase of $458,000, he said.

However, he noted there was a decrease of $131,641, or 1.4 percent, in the Department of Public Works budget attributed to expected savings from contract negotiations with the town's municipal solid waste disposal provider.

Marpe said that, because of a 1.3 percent increase in the grand list and growth in non-tax revenues such as building permits and conveyance fees, there will be an additional $3 million in expected revenues.

"Given these estimates and our conservative approach to financial reserves, I believe the Board of Finance (which sets the town's mill rate on May 21) will work to keep any property tax increase to 2 percent or less, while maintaining appropriately conservative reserve balances," he said.

Marpe said the town is also "proceeding on the slow process through labor contract negotiations to reform its employee benefit plans." He added that three out of the six plans now offer only a defined contribution retirement plan to new employees, such as a 401-K. Of the three other pension plans, one is currently under negotiation and the other two will be negotiated in 2016, Marpe said, which town officials also want to convert to defined contribution plans.

A new job to be funded by the budget approved Monday is the position of operations director, who will report directly to Marpe.

Marpe said that, during the budget process, he identified "at least 10 projects that would benefit from the focused attention of such a position."

John Pincavage, Board of Finance chairman, speaking at Monday's meeting, said finance board had discussions about that position.

"We spoke about it and felt there is the need for" someone to help with "long-range projects," something a person in that position "could focus on."

Shortly after being sworn in as first selectman in November, Marpe, a Republican, appointed his former campaign manager, Bob Zappi, as operations manager, with an annual salary of $125,000, compared to the $101,000 Marpe is paid.

Less than a week later, Zappi quit citing "partisan perception." In fact, then-Democratic Town Committee Chairman Jim Ezzes called Zappi's hiring "totally inappropriate and nothing but political patronage."

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Marpe, in an email Monday afternoon to the Westport News, said he has set up a "bi-partisan committee" that has helped him prepare the job description for the operations director position. That same committee, he said, would interview candidates for the job that will pay between $75,000 and $90,000.

The only discussion during Monday's budget session came after RTM member Louis Mall, D-2, recommended a $38,200 cut in the Historic District Commission budget, based on concerns he said he has with the group.

Marpe said he was "a little taken aback" and wished Mall had raised concerns with him "sooner" than the meeting when the budget vote was planned. RTM member Velma Heller agreed. She said Mall made it clear that the RTM should "establish a forum" to discuss the matter, adding "the last minute of budget time" wasn't the right time for it. Mall, who made the motion for the cut, withdrew it.

The RTM meeting on the education budget will be televised Tuesday on Channel 79 (Cablevision), Channel 99 (AT&T), and by video streaming at www.westportct.gov.