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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.

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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