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Westport OPEB Challenge Comes at Time of Change at Town Hall, Board of Finance

Finance director retires in 2012; election for four BOF seats in in November.

The challenge for Westport’s finance officials to tackle the town’s swollen retiree medical payments liability comes at a time of change at the town hall and the Board of Finance.

Town Finance Director John Kondub, who has been in the role since 2008, will retire at the start of February 2012. He has also been acting personnel director since Tom Hamilton left that position earlier this year.

Board of Finance chair Helen Garten has long called for new town hall bargaining on employee contracts to help squeeze down the town’s long-term unfunded other post employee benefits (OPEB) liability, which stands at close to $80 million.

The cost of OPEB ``is simply too high,’’ said Garten. The change of finance director, without a personnel director in place, ``is a complicating factor’’ she said.

Garten said she believes a new personnel boss should be hired to take the lead on employee negotiations. First Selectman Gordon Joseloff did not respond to questions regarding a new personnel director.

In addition to the change at the town hall, four seats on the seven-member Board of Finance are opening up at the November municipal elections.

Garten will stay on the board, as will Avi Kaner and Brian Stern. Ken Wirfel is seeking a second term and Tom Lasersohn is also up for reelection. Allyson Stollenwerck and Ed Ianonne are stepping down.

Michael Rea, currently chairman of the Finance Committee for the Representative Town Meeting, is one of the Republican nominees seeking election to the Board of Finance.

There’s a ``whole array of financial challenges,’’ said Rea. He too stressed that sustainable employee benefit plans need to be put in place.

``We’ll drown in the benefits we’re giving unless we do something about it,’’ he said. ``You have to attack the [OPEB] problem in many areas. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve got some real challenging times.’’

The Board of Finance agreed Wednesday to put aside $8.2 million this year into the OPEB fund.

The increased  focus on OPEB comes after the town’s actuarial firm discovered earlier this year that a previous report from 2008 significantly undercounted the number of relevant employees. It also  underestimated medical inflation costs.

``This should be a slap in the face for all of us’’ said Rea.  ``There’s still a lot of questions. Do we really understand what went wrong?’’

Rea, who has served on the RTM for nearly 12 years, called for closer oversight of the operations of the finance department following the OPEB report error. That estimate put the OPEB liability at $50 million.

Tom Prince September 28, 2011 at 11:33 AM
Westport needs a town manager, not a ribbon-cutting, backslapping figurehead.
John Izzo September 28, 2011 at 11:39 AM
I assume many of you will remember that I publicly warned about how much trouble our pension plans were in. What we need now are( truly non partisian ) efforts to help solve or at the very least ease the eighty million dollar short fall
Tom Doyle September 28, 2011 at 12:17 PM
Every day that passes without this problem being addressed just increases the burden on residents of Westport. The town cannot afford the status quo. Address the issue don't put your heads in the sand.
John McCarthy September 28, 2011 at 01:46 PM
Probably need both. A ceremonial 1st Selectman (at greatly reduced salary) and a Town Manager (paid market price) who is tasked with running the business of the town.
Judy Starr September 28, 2011 at 06:31 PM
Just remember that a Town Manager does not answer directly to the people, as a First Selectman or Mayor would. So, accountability to "we the people" and "we the taxpayers", is one step removed from us all. Regardless, the problems that we must resolve remain. Do we really want to give up the direct line of accountability between the top position of elected leadership and the constituents whom that officer is supposed to serve?
John Izzo September 28, 2011 at 06:58 PM
For what it's worth, I agree with Judy Starr
Tom Prince September 28, 2011 at 07:08 PM
So voting for someone we hope can do arithmetic is our only shot at managing the town budget? That's pretty lame.
Judy Starr September 28, 2011 at 07:52 PM
I'm not talking about arithmetic, I'm talking about accountability in all areas of government operation to us, the citizens. Nor am I denying the seriousness of the present OPEB problem. I just don't think that the form of government at the top is necessarily the cause or the solution. John, thanks. I agree with you, too!
Tom Prince September 28, 2011 at 08:13 PM
Voting people in and out of office is a slow, painful, expensive way to manage a town. The OPEB problem is a direct result of mistakes and mismanagement. Why are people so afraid of knowledge and expertise? And save the flag-waving for a parade. I believe "the citizens" are tired of seeing their taxes frittered away by people who don't know what they're doing.
Tom Doyle September 28, 2011 at 08:53 PM
It is amazing the different ways the town finds to spend our tax dollars. The liability we are building for employee benefits is huge and at some point if nothing is done the town will reach a tipping point.
John Izzo September 28, 2011 at 11:43 PM
Tom in my veiw, the town has already reached the tipping point ,lets see what's next these contracts that have to be honered unless ................
John Izzo September 29, 2011 at 06:56 PM
Mr Loffredo I hope your not referring to me when you refer to( finger pointing retread politictians) ha ha if you are referring to me let me assure you I have NO political goals. I Happen to be a 68 year Westporter As I was born here and always have had our town's best interest at heart that plus the fact that I never point fingers
John Izzo September 29, 2011 at 10:16 PM
Oh Mr Loffredo,one more thing, I do not own any local business' in Westport. I'm actually CEO of a very succesful trucking company, anyway should you ever want to meet me over coffee well my nbr is 203 227 7815 I'll buy
John Izzo September 30, 2011 at 11:00 AM
Dave Many thanks your explanation is accepted
Eric Wright September 30, 2011 at 02:09 PM
David, It sounds like you are describing Tom Lasersohn. I have watched him on public access in meetings and he really seems to know what he is talking about, and to be focused on the facts. He certainly has the right background. I found a paper that I believe he wrote called "OPEB Made Simpler" on the Westport BoF website that is the best discussion of our OPEB problem that I have see.
Judy Starr September 30, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Just responding to Tom's comment. As far as the tone of his comment, I don't know if they're addressed to my comments or the larger situation, but he obviously has some strong feelings. I think he's not alone in that. We should be aware though, that while elections are a costly and time-consuming process, I doubt they are as high as retiring/firing/releasing a contracted employee such as a town manager. This can be time-consuming and -- expensive. In fact, in such a situation, a town manager may choose to sue (e.g. for wrongful termination or something else.) And at the end of the day, regardless, the contract is probably going to be bought out. So, if you're looking at disposition of taxpayer money, that's a part of the picture, too. I don't think changing our system of government is the key to remediating the present OPEB situation we have found ourselves in, nor to any other situation. I suspect that the OPEB problem was a long time coming, and the way out will be long, too. Personally, I believe that the Board of Finance takes it seriously and deserves credit for that.
Judy Starr September 30, 2011 at 05:42 PM
I'd also like to add that I respect the commitment of time, work, and energy of the present BoF leadership and think that Mike Rea with his years of experience and record of service would make a great addition to that board.
Curious September 30, 2011 at 06:28 PM
Yeah, the same bunch of money professionals that helped dig the ditch that the country is in. Right on!
John Izzo September 30, 2011 at 06:36 PM
Dave now wait a minute, I happen to have an outstanding soccer player in my family. A few months ago he delivered 11 goals yes that's right 11 goals, of course he's at the ripe old age of 8 so I understand how soccer can become habit forming, anyway I look forward to a personal meeting sometime in the future.
Tom Doyle September 30, 2011 at 07:04 PM
It seems to me that everyone agrees that Westport is "in a hole" as it relates to unfunded OPEB. I would suggest that in tackling this hole we consider the Rule of Holes. The first rule is when you are in a hole " stop digging", the second is when you are in a hole " let everyone know how big the hole is" and the third is " let everyone know the progress you are making getting out of the hole". I personally think we are " still digging".
Tom Prince September 30, 2011 at 07:18 PM
The town must now somehow come up with a lot of money. Gordon Joseloff wants to give away a lot of town land. Can we at least elect someone who is not clinically tone-deaf?
Judy Starr September 30, 2011 at 07:37 PM
Tom, I hear you there. If we could at least seek out a for-profit developer, we could get some revenue at one particular site that is poised to be given away, in the center of town, to which perhaps you are referring. Of the overall parcel in question, maybe we could even sell a part. When times were better, no one cared as much, but now I think many taxpayers are beginning to stagger under the increasing load of government related expenses that we are being asked to bear. Judy
Tom Doyle September 30, 2011 at 07:46 PM
I was not referring to anything specific but I can't believe that if taxpayers were given all the facts that they would be in favor of giving away town property to a developer. I personally think it is unconscionable to be giving away town assets when we have such a large shortfall in OPEB obligations. This is Westport and we just can't print money.
John Izzo September 30, 2011 at 09:21 PM
Tom and Judy, there' no way that I can see where we (town goverment ) should not receive the most bang for the Taxpayers Buck ( I assume Judy is talking about Barrons South.) Here's a chance for Westport to, if anything SELL TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER or at the very least stop develpment of additional low income housing or senior care housing. Being a senior myself. I frankly see little need for such a delvelopment as we already lead by a mile in having the most low income housing in our (economic reference group) and quite honestly, I do not see or feel any need or moral obilgation to add further to our inventory of low income housing please keep in mind, that I'm putting (Westport's Financial Position 1st) and the fact that our inventory of low income housing is far far more than those towns that we are compared to. If I sound cold hearted I'm sorry In my view I'm being pragmatic now I think I I'll go and enjoy the wk ed
Judy Starr September 30, 2011 at 09:30 PM
That's creating another financial obligation for the taxpayers of the town, those who work hard to pay the bills that make government run. I'm tired of making the points that there is no shown way to grant priority to "Westport's own" and that there are better ways to achieve the stated goal that will cost the town less. John, I think it's without dispute that you care about this town and all your comments are with that concern in mind. And I agree with your suggestion that -- at nearly 5:30 on a Friday afternoon -- it's time to go enjoy some quality weekend time. I think I'll do just that!
Jack Whittle October 01, 2011 at 02:50 PM
Nice try at knocking Tom Lasersohn, Mr. Curious (whomever you are but won't admit to.) Fact is, Tom is highly-skilled and experienced in money management, but had left the financial business well in advance of the current crisis, not that I accept your silly little reference to the current "ditch" being somehow the fault of some previous time and administration. Tom Lasersohn has been sounding the alarm on OPEB for quite some time, and he, Rea and Pincavage are what we need now to deal with this mess. You know, the huge mess that was missed by the Town's auditing firm, selected by the current Selectman even though they had no municipal experience - also the one that currently performs this function for us today - God forbid the First Selectman actually bounce his hand-picked jokers.

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