The state of the town is strong.
The state of our schools is too.
Those verdicts were delivered by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Board of Education chair Candice Savin yesterday.
A large, inquisitive crowd packed the Westport Library. The 3rd annual State of the Town meeting was sponsored by our 2 Rotary Clubs.
Marpe began by citing 2 newly improved facilities: the library itself, and the Senior Center.
He also mentioned that Westport has the highest life expectancy in Connecticut, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Our neighborhood averages range from 82 years all the way to 89 (Old Hill area). Who knew?!
Among the 2019 accomplishments, Marpe pointed to:
- New accessibility projects at Compo beach, and environmentally friendly turf fields
- Wakeman Town Farm improvements
- Sasco Brook’s de-listing from the state register of impaired waterways
- The town’s new mobile-friendly website
- The Police Department’s innovative technology and equipment, including increased capability to respond in a crisis, and the groundbreaking Tesla 3 patrol car
- Improvement projects at our 2 railroad stations
- A 7% decline in Fire Department 911 calls, in large part due to proactive efforts in schools and the construction industry
- Ongoing investments to upgrade commercial properties downtown and on the Post Road
- 3rd Selectwoman Melissa Kane’s leadership of improved town wayfinding
- 2nd Selectwoman Jen Tooker’s leadership of the “Westport Means Business” series
- Commitment to be a NetZero community by 2050; rebranding “Sustainable Westport”; the RTM’s legislation on replacing single-use plastics; adding new solar energy capacity; switching 1,300 street lights to LED bulbs, and a “Zero Food Waste Challenge,” which includes a free pilot program for dropping off food waste at the transfer station (beginning April 1).
- Consolidation of police, fire and EMS public safety dispatch centers with Fairfield
- Automating building and land use processes with the Planning & Zoning, Building, Conservation, Public Works, Health District and Fire departments.
Of course, there are challenges. Marpe mentioned:
- Traffic. He, the police and Public Works are scheduling RTM district public meetings to identify practical, realistic solutions.
- Affordable housing. We have 3 years left on our moratorium under the 8-30g state statute.
- The need to enhance Longshore, and other town facilities
- Keeping the tax mill rate flat, as it has been for about 5 years. Marpe noted that financial reserves are at or ahead of “our conservative targets,” and that pension and post-employment benefit assets are “very well-funded.”
Marpe concluded his prepared remarks by noting:
Westport is and will continue to be among the most attractive towns in the tri-state area to raise a family, educate children, create and grow a business, and retire.
We are a truly rare and wonderful combination of a small, charming New England town committed to celebrating our past and preserving our history, and also a cutting-edge community that fosters innovation, creativity and progress.
Board of Ed chair Savin said that the Westport School District is “strong, and getting stronger,” in areas like academics, arts, special education and athletics.
She noted the district’s focus on social and emotional health, safety and security — and combating vaping.
Among the challenges: reopening Coleytown Middle School, the budget, and the search for a new schools superintendent.
She said the board and community must “continue to invest in students, professionals and infrastructure.”
Moderator Jeff Wieser then read questions from audience members.
Marpe was asked about his biggest budgetary challenge. “The capital forecast — school and town projects,” he said.
Regarding empty storefronts on Main Street, he pointed to new businesses coming in, along with “mom and mom” stores owned by local residents. He noted that the P&Z wants to improve efficiencies of town processes, and praised Regency Centers — owners of several large Westport shopping areas — for recent upgrades of their properties.
Marpe also said that the Downtown Merchants Association and Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce are working hard to attract new businesses.
Asked about the relationship with the Westport Museum for History & Culture, the 1st selectman said that the town no longer stores records there, eliminating a $7,500 storage fee. He said that although this year the town helped fund the Museum’s First Light celebration, he was “troubled” when he realized some of the money went toward employees’ salaries.
“We are working with them to recover that portion” of the funds, he said.
However, Marpe added, “the tone of a lot of comments (on ‘06880’) were not what Westport is about. It was like cyber-bullying. I appeal to residents to step back. You’re talking about people who live down the street from you.”
Regarding traffic, Marpe said the most significant impact comes from Waze. He acknowledged frustration with timing of Post Road lights, and said the town is in “regular communication” with the state Department of Transportation.
As for Joey’s at the Shore, Marpe described the town’s 30-year relationship with the former beach concessionaire. He said they parted ways “without hard feelings.” An RFP has been issued for Compo, the skating rink/pool and golf course halfway house.
Seven or eight “well qualified” responses have been received. Bids will be open this week, and Marpe is optimistic that the new concessionaire will continue Joey Romeo’s “warmth, style, sensitivity and food.” He warned though that it may not be “fully operational” by the start of beach season.
In response to Board of Ed questions, Savin said that there are contingency plans in case CMS is not ready to reopen next fall; that pushing school start times back 30 minutes for all schools will be on the February 3 and February 10 agendas, and that declining enrollment is more challenging at the middle school level (because of the team approach) than in elementary schools and Staples High.
When the meeting was over, the town officials were not through. Members of the audience continued to ask questions. Marpe and Savin kept answering them.