Westport has dug itself a deep fiscal hole, one that will require a $2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override to begin to dig out of.
That message was delivered by Town Administrator Jack Healey to Selectmen recently.
Selectmen, who have said they are determined to finally keep hands off the free cash account for operating expenses, agreed that the situation is rapidly coming to a head. But they wondered aloud how the severity of the situation can be communicated to voters who have typically shown little inclination to support Prop 2 1/2 overrides.
An override of nearly $2 million is needed, Mr. Healey said, to address problems with town vehicles, buildings and grounds over the next four years.
It has become a “crisis,” Mr. Healey said, and is “a direct result of ignoring basic maintenance and replacement needs of the town for years while using one-time revenue, free cash and surpluses to balance budgets instead,” he told Selectmen.
“Even with a $2 million override it will take a number of years to dig out of the hole,” he added.
The impact will not be as painful for homeowners as it sounds, the administrator suggested.
Approving the override would require an estimated tax increase of 69.3 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value, the town’s assessor has calculated.
For the owner of a house valued at $296,500, the median value of Westport’s 5,761 single family homes, that would mean a tax increase of $205. That would break down to $17 a month, $3.98 a week or 57 cents a day, Mr. Healey said.
Even put that way, Selectmen said an override faces long odds.
“We’ve tried the coffee-a-day thing and it didn’t work,” said Selectman Steven J. Ouellette, who said that a debt exclusion approach might stand a better chance of success. By approving a debt exclusion, a community calculates its annual levy limit under Proposition 2½, then adds the excluded debt service cost. The amount is added to the levy limit for the life of the debt only and may increase the levy above the ceiling.
Selectman Craig Dutra agreed that convincing voters will be a challenge. He said previous failed attempts have lacked a “sense of urgency” and that rejecting overrides may not seem to have produced much in the way of dire results such as layoffs and service cuts.
There needs to be a “groundswell of support” for a Prop 2 1/2 request to succeed, he said.
Selectmen have already agreed draw around $500,000 from the free cash surplus account to address pressing capital budget needs including $567,000 on the town side and $829,000 from the school side — a total of $1.39 million this year alone, Mr. Healey said.
He said that, “at this point in the budge process we have cut town departments by nearly $600,000.” The school superintendent has been asked to prepare a budget that is “just $150,000 higher than last year” while school contractual obligations will rise by $307,000. Added to the school woes is the fact that a new school bus contract will need to account for health insurance for the first time.
School administrators had been asked to draft a list of improvements needed “to give students the tools they need:” That list totals about $1 million.