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.