A five-year financial plan recently released by the Town of Westport concludes that fundamental changes in the way the town does business will likely need to be made if the town is to dig itself out …
A five-year financial plan recently released by the Town of Westport concludes that fundamental changes in the way the town does business will likely need to be made if the town is to dig itself out of the chronic financial hole it’s now in.
The unofficial draft plan was written over the last several weeks by Westport Town Manager James Hartnett and Richard Brewer, chairman of the Select Board. It finds that with the failure last July of the $3 million override ballot question, a populace that appears averse to tax increases, rising costs and many other factors, “Westport faces significant challenges as the gap between revenue and expense growth continues to widen.”
“Whereas many communities remedy budget problems by passing Proposition 2 1/1 overrides” like the one voters defeated last July, “Westport voters have been reluctant to do so, thus putting added financial pressure on the town budget.”
The plan calls for a wide range of measures to get finances back on track, and proposes moving away from the system that has helped drive school spending in recent years — using “free cash,” or surplus municipal funds, to augment the school budget every year.
From possible departmental cuts to privatization of some services and a re-thinking of others, Brewer and Hartnett conclude, “the town may benefit from different approaches that could be more efficient and save money.”
Where could savings come?
While Brewer and Hartnett write that “it is difficult to exclude any departments or functions from the list of essential services, the town’s financial situation will call for leaders to make judgements about which functions are the most critical. If we need to make budget cuts, we should do it only after exhausting other alternatives.”
Some of those could theoretically include:
Transfer station: Westport could use the model employed by other towns that do not provide trash removal services and instead rely on private waste companies:
“The town could decide to close the transfer station, it could consider contracting with a private company ... Running the transfer station with reduced hours of operation might be considered.”
Council on Aging: The report’s authors concede that as Westport’s population continues to age, demand for senior-related services will only increase.
“However, it is unclear how much annual financial support will come from (the town) in the years ahead. In order to continue to meet the growing needs, the COA might consider becoming independent of the town. In other words, it would be a separate entity ... the town may contribute money as its finances allow.”
Stepping back from Diman?: Last year, voters approved of a plan to contribute $13 million over the next 25 years to the Diman Vocational rebuilding project. With that financial obligation, “the town pays a premium for each Diman student.”
“In the event of a serious financial difficulty, the town would need to ask if we should continue to be part of the Diman system. An alternative might be to subsidize the cost of tuition at some pre-determined percentage as opposed to paying the full amount.”
Cemetery services: The authors suggest merging the cemetery department with the transfer station as a way to share expenses.
“If combined, there would be a number of hurdles to overcome such as unions and town meeting approval.”
Town beaches: Managed and operated via a town enterprise funds, the beaches are a vital resource and must be protected, the authors write. Still, “the enterprise fund could be discontinued or modified and this would make excess funds available to the town. Further study is needed.” On a tangent, the authors suggest the possibility or privatizing the town’s beach permit system, and also recommend looking at the financial structure of the harbor department.
Town library: Though it does receive outside financial support, the library also receives some funding from the town.
“Financial support from the town may wane in view of budget challenges. The library could become a self-funded, stand-alone entity, but whether this is even possible would have to be explored.”
Legal expenses: “Consideration might ... be given to hiring a less expensive law firm that would be suitable for our needs.”
Recreation: The recreation department’s expenses are largely covered by fees — “It is recommended that a review of its finances be conducted to ensure it is generating sufficient funds for continued operation.”
The town and schools
Apart from municipal operating expenses, the school budget is the town’s largest. Hartnett and Brewer suggest that going forward, both entities should work together to wean the district off the yearly use of free cash over the next five years.
They suggest funding the district at $400,000 of free cash this coming fiscal year, then reducing it by $100,000 per year over the next five years. By the 2028-29 school year, the district would receive no free cash from the town.
The report spans 11 pages and includes other information about budget growth, revenue, liabilities and other issues that are likely to impact the budget in the coming years. While it is not official, Hartnett said it could become an official town document with review from the select board. To read the full study and other current budget information, click here.