What a difference a year makes.
At this time in 2020, when 1st Selectman Jim Marpe gave his State of the Town address to a large Westport Library crowd, he was aware of something called “the coronavirus.” But the town was strong, and the 4 challenges he cited were traffic, affordable housing, enhancing town facilities, and the mill rate.
Barely a month later, he led a town-wide Coronavirus Seminar in the library — though some residents stayed home, and watched virtually.
Three days later the schools, Town Hall and all public facilities shut down.
This afternoon, Marpe and Board of Education chair Candice Savin were back at the library. But they delivered the 4th annual State of the Town report to an empty Trefz Forum. The event — like so many others in the past 10 months — was fully remote.
COVID colored nearly all of both leaders’ remarks.
Marpe acknowledged that as an early hot spot, Westport “stumbled a little out of the gate.” But — from outdoor dining to the Remarkable Theater; from public and private pivots to new ways of celebrating holidays; in ways large and small — Westport’s response was creative and strong.
The 1st selectman cited these operations:
- Live remote work, including all town services
- Zoom technology for public and internal meetings
- A property tax deferral program.
- Flexibility with town rules
- Election registration, and primary and general elections, completed using drop-off and mail-in ballots, and socially distanced polling places.
Town officials interpreted often inconsistent governor’s and state guidelines to the public, Marpe said. They used Nixle, social media, video, their website, school contact lists and more to communicate. They coordinated education, compliance and enforcement efforts with the fire marshal and Westport Weston Health District.
Officials also worked with local business owners, leaders and organizations like the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Merchants Association to reopen safely.
Marpe noted non-COVID efforts as well:
- Launching the “Zero Food Waste Challenge” with Sustainable Westport.
- Negotiating to establish new management at the Inn at Longshore
- Initiating the Transit District’s Wheels to You program
- Inaugurating “Westport Together” alliance to strengthen the health and well-being of Westport’s youth.
He added, “the murders of George Floyd and other persons of color, along with some racially driven local events, caused all of us to re-examine our commitment to diversity and inclusion.” TEAM Westport, the Westport Library and Westport Country Playhouse have partnered in those efforts.
In addition, Marpe said:
- The P&Z Commission amended zoning regulations to create new opportunities for semi-independent units designed for adults with special needs.
- He attends P&Z Affordable Housing Subcommittee meetings, with representatives from TEAM Westport, Health & Human Services, the Westport Housing Authority, the RTM and others
- P&Z chair Danielle Dobin and he have participated in statewide webinars and panels focusing on affordable housing and racial equity.
- The town is committed to focus more assertively on hiring and mentoring a more diverse workforce.
- He worked with the Chief of Police, Fire Chief and EMS to establish a Civilian Review Panel to oversee complaints and hiring.
Then came Tropical Storm Isaias. No lives were lost, and property damage was limited. But it was one more test of town government.
In the aftermath, Marpe worked with state officials to hold Eversource accountable — and updated the town’s emergency plan.
Meanwhile, Marpe said, the “normal work of government” went on this year:
- Artificial turf was refurbished at Jinny Parker and PJ Romano Fields; new lighting was at the Greens Farms Elementary School field, and Riverside Park was improved
- Public Works paved over 10 miles of roadway
- Public Works and Parks & Rec are beginning to use electric leaf blowers
- The Human Services Department received $1 million in Community Development Block Grants to address homelessness on a county-wide basis.
- Town Assessor Paul Friia and his staff conducted the 5-year revaluation of residential and commercial property.
- The 2020 Census was completed. with over 85% self-initiated response rates from
- Town Hall was reopened to the public with appointments.
- Coleytown Middle School was reopened (“11 months ago, I thought that would be the big story this year,” Marpe said).
Projects that were delayed, but are now underway, include:
- A marketing campaign to promote Westport to businesses and potential residents
- Pursuing final approvals to dredge the Saugatuck River in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers; seeking state and federal funding
- Completing Kings Highway bridge work by late spring
- Adding plaques to Town Hall and 22 ½ Main Street to acknowledge the contributions of Black and indigenous people to the history of Westport.
Among the items on the agenda for the coming year:
- Repaving the Senior Center and upper library parking lots
- Burying utility lines from Main Street to Gorham Island.
- Completing the site plan for Longshore and Baron’s South
- Additional improvements at Riverside Park and Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum.
- Initiating a full infrastructure plan that includes bridges, parking lots, sewers and town buildings
- Working with a private company to enhance the town’s wireless and fiber infrastructure.
- Creating a cybersecurity response plan.
Cybersecurity is one of the 3 items that keep Marpe up at night, he said. The others: vaccine distribution, and COVID’s economic impact on the town.
Marpe concluded by thanking town employees, elected and appointed officials, business owners and residents for keeping Westport “remarkably strong, given the unanticipated circumstances of the past year.”
There is light at the end of the tunnel, he said. And although we are still in the tunnel, the town is “resilient and stronger than ever.”
Marpe was preceded on stage by Candice Savin. The Board of Ed chair lauded teachers and administrators’ “hard work, dedication and creativity” in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, and described educational, health and safety responses to it.
Two highlights of the year, she said, were the reopening of Coleytown Middle School, and the appointment of Tom Scarice as superintendent of schools.
Savin also noted ongoing work at all levels on diversity, equity and inclusion issues, along with a variety of honors, awards and achievements by schools, staff and students.
(Today’s event was sponsored by the Westport Rotary Club and Westport Sunrise Rotary, in cooperation with the Westport Library. Assistant town attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug moderated.)