Category Archives: Economy

One More Reason To Love Trader Joe’s

Everyone knows that our strong school system keeps property values high.

But who knew Trader Joe’s does the same?

According to the Huffington Post, a recent study found that 2 years after a Trader Joe’s opens, the median home within a mile of that store increased in value 10 percent more than others in the same town.

One economic engine...

One economic engine…

Homes within a mile of a Whole Foods also gain value faster than others in the surrounding area.

...and another.

…and another.

That’s not only good news for Westport — where we enjoy both a Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

It’s also a solution to the teardown battles. Instead of building big new homes everywhere in town, we just need to erect more Trader Joe’s and Whole Foodses!

(Hat tip: Johanna Rossi)

Westport’s Newest “Billions” Hedge Fund

Hedge fund guys — well, every one but Steve Cohen — are known for keeping low profiles.

But how many Westporters have heard of Bobby “Axe” Axelrod? Or AXE Capital, the Westport-based firm he runs?

Okay, there’s a reason he and his company are so hush-hush.

They exist only on Showtime.

But starting Sunday (January 17, 10 p.m.), the whole country will know about Axelrod and AXE. That’s when the cable channel debuts “Billions,” a “hedge fund drama” set in our town.

'Billions' - Showtime

Business Insider predicts big things — across America, not just in hedge fund hot spots like here. The show “hits a sweet spot between the laymen and the industry folk,” BI says. The reason: “Billions” focuses more on men and their egos than on the intricacies of Wall Street.

Damian Lewis plays Axelrod. His nemesis is US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who tries to nail him for insider trading.

Here are some other reasons Business Insider loves “Billions”:

  • “The show nailed what all the hedge fund traders wear — fleeces and loafers. That’s the classic uniform.”
  • “There’s a punchline about Axelrod going to Hofstra while his smart (but not quite worthy) analyst went to Stanford. It’s the age old street-smarts vs. book-smarts Wall Street feud.”
  • “Rhoades’ wife is Axelrod’s in-house shrink. An in-house psychologist is not unheard of on Wall Street. Most famously, billionaire Steve Cohen had one at SAC Capital before he was forced to turn it into a family office.”

Westport is used to TV star turns. Rod Serling’s classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Last Stop: Willoughby” was set here. The Ricardos and Mertzes moved from New York, in “I Love Lucy”‘s last season. Elizabeth Montgomery and her “Bewitched” family lived at “1164 Morning Glory Circle” in Westport.

But those were so 20th century. It’s now 2016. Today, Westport is all about hedge funds.

In more ways than one, it’s showtime!

(Hat tip: Allan Siegert)



Bart Shuldman: Tax Increase Could Have Been Avoided

Alert “06880” reader and frequent commenter Bart Shuldman writes:

I watched the September 2 video of the Board of Finance meeting, and was surprised to learn Westport just finished the fiscal year with a $4 million surplus — even though 2 months ago the decision was made to raise taxes.

From what I listened to, the revenue in Westport came in a bit higher but costs were much lower. One cost center, Public Works came in over $600,000 lower in costs which had to be known, yet the finance director in Westport did not project that (and other lower costs) just 2 months back.

When disaster strikes, Westport's Public Works Department responds.

When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.

How could the finance director not know this while a discussion as going on about increasing taxes? If the Board of Finance knew that we would end the year with a big surplus (over 2% of the budget), would we have avoided a tax increase? I am told: yes.

Not only did the costs come in much lower, the Board of Education returned $180,000 back to the town. I guess the constant request of needing more money for our school system was not needed last year.

These tax increases hurt our senior citizens the most. With low interest rates and low returns in the stock market, anyone who is retired has a difficult time if their costs increase. Now these residents face increased taxes in Westport when it should have been avoided.

The good news is our first selectman and Board of Finance have done a great job controlling costs. They clearly deserve our thanks. But now it’s time to get a functioning finance department in Westport that can forecast better, especially with just 2 months to go. Not being able to provide the necessary information to our Board of Finance regarding our financial results as we get close to the end of the fiscal year is very concerning, and resulted in an unnecessary tax increase.


Town finance director Gary Conrad replies:

In May we projected a conservative $2.5 million surplus. Because of this, the Board of Finance set the mill rate using $4.1 million dollars of fund balance to reduce the tax increase. So in effect we used the whole $4.0 million surplus to reduce taxes while the mill rate increase was only .84%. Department of Public Works savings were achieved due to lower solid waste costs and the deferral of building maintenance, tree maintenance and parks and recreation property maintenance.


2nd Selectman Avi Kaner — a former chair and 8-year member of the Board of Finance — also responds:

Westport’s annual budget stands at over $200 million. Our town department heads and the Board of Finance work diligently to control our expenses and report to the public on a monthly basis.

Westport sealBecause the Board of Finance did not meet in August, the resulting surplus was discussed in September. The amount of the surplus caught the members by surprise given the values shown in July.

The good news is that any budget surplus enters into the town’s general reserves and is available to defray any tax increase. The Board of Finance has been pegging the town’s reserves at a conservative 11%, aggressively paying down long term debt, fully funding our pension obligations, and maintaining our AAA rating.

When the Board of Finance sets the mil rate again in about 8 months, the surplus will be used to lower the change in mil rate once again for that fiscal year. We will work with the finance department to more accurately forecast revenues and expenses on a monthly basis.

Arrivederci, Villarina’s

Villarina’s is closing very soon. The popular Compo Shopping Center seller of homemade pasta, sauces, prepared dinners, fresh bread, cheese, party trays and specialty items is the latest victim of rising rents.

“It’s been there about 18 years. Sales were strong, and margins fine,” says Joe Filc, owner of the Danbury-based company.

“But the rent doubled. And as I understand it, the landlord wants to consolidate the vacant space next door.” That’s the site of the former AAA office.

Villarina’s has been in Westport for nearly 20 years. There are 7 other stores in Connecticut, New York and Austin, Texas — like this one, all individually operated. Filc says that unlike Westport, most own their property.

Much of his business comes from private labels, Filc says. Products are also available at select restaurants and food stores.

(Photo and hat tip: Elizabeth Glaser)

(Photo and hat tip: Elizabeth Glaser)

Tough Times In A Town Of Plenty

There are nightmare scenarios no one wants to think about.

One struck a Westport man named Gary.

His wife died 7 years ago, of stomach cancer. Their 3rd child had just been born.



Gary raised them on his own, helping them move beyond their devastating loss. Proudly, he says, they are “growing as well-rounded, loving and respectful kids.”

A sales trader who deals in equities, he works on a commission-only basis. Over the past few months, business dried up.

The family lived in a very modest 2-bedroom apartment. He fell behind on his rent. Last Friday, his landlord evicted him.

Gary is 3 months behind on payments for his 2007 Jeep too. Repossession is imminent.

Two of his 3 children are living with relatives this summer. He’s spoken to Homes With Hope, but they have no housing for a single father and his family.

“I’ve done everything possible to stay positive, and provide for my children these last few years,” he says. “But I find my back up against a wall, and don’t see any other avenues to pursue.

“My credit rating suffered terribly after my wife passed, so a bank loan is not an option at present. I hope business will pick up shortly, and we will be okay.

“I am also a realist. I’m looking for new employment, but that is not an easy task these days.”

He posted those words on It could not have been easy to ask for help like that. But he can’t think of what else to do.

GoFundMe logo

A friend asked me to tell Gary’s story on “06880.” I called Gary, to get his permission.

I warned him that cyberspace can be cruel. Some readers might make snarky remarks about a Westporter — even one who has been evicted from his home — asking for help.

He’s willing to take that chance.

And I’m betting that “06880” readers will understand that Gary’s story could be any of ours.

(To make a contribution to Gary’s GoFundMe page, click here.)



Budgets: 2. Drama: 0.

Something was missing this week, when the RTM considered Westport’s 2 budgets.


On Monday night, the legislative body unanimously approved $79 million in town spending for 2015-16. That’s a 2.51% increase over the current year. Included in the funding: $37,714 previously cut from the Transit District.

Last night, the vote was again unanimous: $111 million for the Board of Education. That’s a cut of $300,000 from what the Board of Finance approved in March; it’s up 1.8% from last year.

RTM members praised Jim Marpe’s administration, the superintendent of schools and  Board of Ed for the care and scrutiny with which they prepared their requests.

Westport sealBudget season in Westport used to be high drama. Proponents claimed that every dollar was sacrosanct to the future of Westport. Opponents shouted that massive cuts were needed to avoid fiscal ruin. Invective would spew. Referendums were threatened (or actually held). Things got ugly.

And the next year, the same thing happened all over again.

Budget season has been quiet for a while now. A couple of elements are at work.

Selectmen, the superintendent and Board of Ed have been prudent and honest in their requests. They’ve worked closely with the Board of Finance to understand what’s realistic — and the Board of Finance has worked hard to understand realistic requests.

All sides have tried to balance the all-important (and very elusive) concept of “quality of Westport life” with the economic realities of the 21st century.

Political posturing has been replaced with true bipartisanship.

Westport Public  SchoolsNo one in Westport threatens a government shutdown. No one wants to sequester funds. No one panders to a special set of constituents or supporters. That’s the way democracy works. Or it’s supposed to, anyway.

We haven’t heard a lot of names of local politicians lately. Many Westporters don’t even know who is chairman of the Board of Finance (John Pincavage) or Board of Ed (Michael Gordon). One is a Republican. The other’s a Democrat. Together, they and their boards govern effectively — and without egos.

The Board of Finance sets the official mill rate 2 weeks from today. A minimal increase is expected from the current 17.94.

New Taxes On Tap Via “County Government”?

Fairfield is a county in name only. Since 1960 — when the General Assembly abolished county governments — Connecticut’s 8 counties are about as useful as your appendix. The only reason they still exist, really, is to organize our judicial system.

Fairfield County is not the same as a proposed regional "Council of Government." But it would add another administrative layer to the state.

Fairfield County is not the same as a proposed regional “Council of Government.” But it would add another administrative layer to the state.

Except — according to State Representative Gail Lavielle — state legislators may introduce a new layer of taxing authority in the state. It may not officially be based on county governments (“regional Council of Governments” is the term) — but the effect would be the same.

Lavielle — who represents Westport, Wilton and Norwalk — says that if passed, SB 1 (“An Act Concerning Tax Fairness and Economic Development”) would establish a “regional property tax base revenue sharing system.”

She writes:

Each municipality would remit part of its local property taxes to its regional Council of Governments, which would in turn redistribute those funds among all of its member towns and cities, according to a formula that takes into account factors including each municipality’s population and property value.

Some towns would gain revenues; others would lose.

Lavielle says that in 2013 — when the General Assembly imposed the COG structure on all regional planning organizations — there was much discussion about its implications. The bill’s proponents assured Lavielle and others that COGs would not be responsible for property taxation issues on a regional basis, or any other level, she says.

But, she adds: “That assurance is not upheld in SB 1.”

(Hat tip: Bart Shuldman)

Alexander Chatfield (Lex) Burns: The Sequel

A post earlier today described the travails of Alexander Chatfield Burns — the high-flying New Yorker who, according to the Wall Street Journal, may be implicated in multi-million dollar problems at his former company, Southport Lane Management.

Alexander Chatfield Burns today... (Photo/

Alexander Chatfield Burns today… (Photo/

Burns did not go to Yale, as he claimed. He said he grew up in Westport, but no one here had heard of Alexander Chatfield Burns.

That’s because he went by the names “Lexy” (Coleytown Elementary and Middle Schools) and “Lex” (Staples).

He was in Staples’ Class of 2005, several classmates and parents confirm. However, his photo does not appear in the Staples yearbook — nor is he listed as a senior without a photo.

His photo is shown in the Class of 2004 yearbook, as a junior. That year — as commenter Jeff Mitchell notes — the Norwalk Hour listed him as a 2nd honors student.

...and Alexander (Lex) Burns as a junior, in the 2004 Staples High School yearbook.

…and Alexander (Lex) Burns as a junior, in the 2004 Staples High School yearbook.

One parent recalls him as being “brilliant — really ‘out there’ smart” at Coleytown Middle. She adds: “I think he may have won a huge award for coming up with some new idea having to do with fuel or gases or something. It was a big deal in the science world.”

She says that he went on found a New York film-making company that was very successful, “considering his young age and the short period of time he’d been working on it.”

Somewhere over the next few years, it seems, he turned his attention to Wall Street. The results are not good.

Another Westporter (Unfortunately) In The News

A dozen alert “06880” readers have emailed me links to the same Wall Street Journal story.

Titled “Young Financier’s Insurance Empire Collapses,” it begins:

Alexander Chatfield Burns cut a dashing figure in young New York financial circles.

Still in his mid-20s, he controlled a private-equity firm that owned several insurance companies. He called late-night meetings at a penthouse cigar club and donated the wine for a Guggenheim museum event from a vineyard he later bought.

Then one day about a year ago, Mr. Burns checked into a mental-health ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, leaving behind an affidavit describing an unusual series of asset transfers. Soon after, he resigned from his company, Southport Lane Management LLC.

Now, insurance investigators are sifting through the rubble. Delaware regulators say Southport under Mr. Burns siphoned off millions of dollars of mainstream insurance holdings, replacing them with assets that were “illiquid, grossly over-valued or hard to value, worthless, and in some cases non-existent,” as the state’s insurance commissioner put it in a filing in Delaware Chancery Court….

Alexander Chatfield Burns. (Photo/

Alexander Chatfield Burns. (Photo/

The story continues that Burns — now 28 years old — “amassed a business including two U.S. insurance companies, two offshore reinsurers, a brokerage firm and a web of dealings with other insurers that left him in charge of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional assets.”

Regulators seized control of the two main insurance companies last April. One in Delaware now is being liquidated, while one in Louisiana has been sold. Insurance-company losses total nearly $250 million, based on write-downs taken, while insurers still hold tens of millions of dollars in other questionable assets, according to insurance regulatory filings and court documents.

The “06880” hook is that, according to the story, Burns grew up in Westport as “a financial prodigy.”

When he was about 13, his mother told Robert N. Gordon, a friend and head of Twenty-First Securities Corp., that her son had determined that a famed options-pricing model “was wrong” and “he had a better idea,” Mr. Gordon recalls. The model, called Black-Scholes, had won its authors a Nobel Prize. Mr. Burns’s mother, a former Citigroup Inc. executive, declined to comment.

Very interesting. What’s even more interesting is that none of the people who emailed me the WSJ story has ever heard of “Alexander Chatfield Burns.”

The article adds that Burns “attended Yale and often wore Yale apparel, and he traced his Chatfield ancestry to the Mayflower, according to former associates.” However, Yale has no record that he went there.

And Twenty-First Securities — where Burns’ resume said he “began his career” — says he was never an employee. (He may have hung around the trading room as “when he was a kid.”)

Perhaps Alexander Chatfield Burns is making up his Westport pedigree too?

Fairfield County Aid, From Near & Far

Connecticut leads the nation in income inequality. The top 1 percent of our residents earn average incomes more than 48 times those of the bottom 99 percent. In Fairfield County, the figures are undoubtedly even more skewed.

Quietly — but very effectively — Near & Far Aid helps those on the lowest rungs.

NearFar_logoSince 2000, the unassumingly named, all-volunteer organization has donated more than $14 million to men, women and children living in poverty right in our midst.

Grants go to services providing emergency food, shelter and clothing; economy security programs like job training, financial literacy and affordable housing, and of course education.

The funds come from neighbors who contribute generously — very generously. But raising money is never easy. With tremendous competition from many worthy groups for donations, Near & Far Aid works hard to solicit funds.

They’re helped greatly by the generosity of the Mitchells. The  family — who offer up their store for nearly every charity that asks — holds a special place in their hearts for Near & Far Aid. For 20 years, they’ve hosted an amazing Spring Gala.

Sara BareillesThis year’s event is Friday, March 6. The highlight: an intimate concert with 5-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles. There are also live, silent and fine wine auctions; a spring fashion show, plus cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and supper.

As usual, Bob Mitchell — co-CEO of Mitchells and Richards — will be a “silent” event chair. He lends support, ideas and resources, but takes no credit.

“We truly cherish our 20-year partnership with Near & Far Aid,” Mitchell says. “Our family shares the same mission to give back to the less fortunate, particularly here in our community. We are so excited for this year’s 20th anniversary. We’re confident it will raise a record amount of funds, bringing relief, assistance and hope to those living in poverty.”

The “wealth gap” in this area is enormous. The consequences are real.

But the opportunity to help is priceless.

(For information on Spring Gala tickets, or to volunteer or make a donation, click here.)

The Mitchell family

The Mitchell family