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Town Affairs Update: Weston explores creative budget options

Board of Finance Chairman Jerry Sargent reports on the town’s overall financial status while Superintendent Colleen Palmer listens at the League of Women Voters”s town affairs update Saturday. —Margaret Wirtenberg

Many things were up for discussion at the League of Women Voters’ Town Affairs Update, held Saturday, Nov. 10, at town hall, but chief among them was the budget.

The league invited a panel of speakers that included First Selectman Gayle Weinstein, Superintendent of Weston schools Colleen Palmer, Jerry Sargent, finance board chairman, and Ken Edgar, co-chairman of the Charter Revision Commission — who also happens to be chairman of the volunteer Weston Community Service Coalition — to talk about their recent and upcoming activities and how those can be expected to affect the 2013-12 budget process.

About 30 people attended the forum, many of whom wanted to talk about the town’s response to Superstorm Sandy.

But of interest was also the town’s fiscal health and how the new town charter changes the way the town does business.

Town

First Selectman Weinstein said the town is in good financial shape, with a budget surplus (general fund) of about 13% of the total budget, which is about where the town aims to be.

Conveyance fees are up, from a total of about $123,000 last year to about $183,000 so far this year.

Social service needs “are essentially flat,” Ms. Weinstein said, although the department is receiving more calls from (or regarding) people who are “aging in place” in town.

Looking ahead, she said she plans to “continue the process of moving the town forward.” That includes taking a close look at town facilities and trying to utilize them as efficiently as possible.

When it comes to developing the 2013-14 budget, a process which is already underway, people need to be aware “there’s only so much you can do every year to reduce the budget when so much of the budget has fixed costs, like salaries and that kind of thing,” Ms. Weinstein said.

The town is exploring new and more creative ways to try to save money, such as looking at regional options and sharing resources with the school district.

Schools

Superintendent Palmer reiterated the benefit of the town and the schools working cooperatively. “It’s been such a pleasure to have such a strong partnership with the town,” she said.

Dr. Palmer said the district is keeping a close eye on declining student enrollment, and plans to adjust the budget accordingly. That means changing staffing when necessary and sharing space with the town when possible, she said.

“As we look at how we operate, we want to be sure not to erode the quality of education” while still being fiscally responsible, Dr. Palmer said.

“We are focused on high quality, and focused on always pushing the envelope,” she said.

In recognition of that, she added, the state Department of Education has nominated Weston High School as one of just four schools in the state — and just 1,600 schools nationwide — to apply for the national Blue Ribbon School designation, something described earlier this week as “a truly distinctive honor.”

Finance board

Mr. Sargent admitted that the finance board is often viewed as “the bad guys, the people who say no.” But, he said, he is proud of the non-partisan way the board does business and the seriousness with which its members take their “stewardship responsibility.”

The board has several guiding principles, he said. These include paying down town debt and not taking on new debt whenever possible; keeping spending targets at or below grand list growth — difficult recently as growth has been essentially flat for the last several years; and aggressively managing the town’s short- and long-term health benefits (insurance and other post employment benefits, or OPEB, costs).

Health benefits are “the biggest wild card” for taxpayers, Mr. Sargent said, but the board’s efforts have saved the town more than $2 million.

He said Weston is among the top towns in the state in addressing long-term OPEB liabilities. Being ahead of where it needs to be will be a huge advantage when “mandates come down from the state” for municipalities to tackle the issue.

Mr. Sargent agreed with Ms. Weinstein that creativity is the key in keeping the budget under control in the future.

“If we want to still deliver a level of service and not shortchange the taxpayers, but get better performance from the budget, then you have to figure out a little more creative ways, like regionalization and town and school cooperation. So we’re gong down that path,” he said.

He added that one “uncomfortable topic” the finance board is trying to address is “competition with surrounding towns.” All Fairfield County towns have great schools and are nice places to live, he said. In truth, “we’re competing for real estate buyer dollars,” he said. The board believes, he said, that a competitive mill rate and marketing of the town’s strong long-term health will attract those dollars.

Charter

When it comes to the budget, the process by which it is created, voted on, and implemented each year is dictated by the Weston Town Charter.

Voters on Nov. 6 approved a new town charter — already in effect — by a 3-1 margin. Mr. Edgar, who led the Charter Revision Commission that spent more than a year re-tooling the document,  thanked voters for their support. He then explained some of the changes.

For the past three years, the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM) — a Town Meeting where the budget is decided by voice vote — has been followed by a machine referendum, because of petitions from voters or votes by the Board of Selectmen.

“We codified the process,” Mr. Edgar said. The budget vote will now go immediately to a machine vote after the ATBM, which must now have a quorum of at least 2% of registered voters in order for the budget to be lowered (it may not be raised at the ATBM). Voters may cast ballots that same night, or at a polling place a week or so later.

Other major changes to the charter include the tax collector being changed to an appointed post; the terms of the finance board members will be four years instead of six; the elimination of school board “safe seats” (every election can have a competitive race); and the Board of Ethics is now an official board.

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