Category Archives: Economy

No Joy: Fitness Studio Closes

JoyRide is closing.

Amy Hochhauser and Rhodie Lorenz — co-founders of the popular cycling, Pilates, barre and fitness center — will shut their Westport doors September 2.

COVID — and big banks — are the reason.

In an email sent this afternoon, Amy and Rhodie say:

“The past 2 ½ years have been an incredible struggle for many folks. As small business owners in the fitness sector, we’ve been hit particularly hard. Although we were able to survive many of the twists and turns related to the pandemic, unfortunately our industry failed to receive enough government aid. The business is simply unable to overcome the substantial losses incurred during COVID and the related studio closures.

JoyRide, during the pandemic. The virus caused closures, then severely limited the number of customers at any one time.

“Westport was our first studio, and will always hold a special place in our hearts. Over the past 11 years, we’ve welcomed over 30,000 riders and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various charitable organizations. Together we formed an incredible community – our beloved JoyFamily – with whom we’ve shared the ups and downs of life. We take comfort in knowing that many of these friendships will last a lifetime.

“We hope JoyRide Westport is remembered for its core values: Inclusivity, Positivity, Community, Teamwork and Giving Back. Our goal has always been to build a place that would allow individuals to come together through fitness and build strength to live ‘big joyful’ lives. We still believe deeply in these pillars, and we hope that the JoyCommunity carries them forward as they face the many challenges of life.

“To our Westport Team — past and present — thank you from the bottom of our hearts. From our instructors to desk staff to our landlord, we’ve been so incredibly lucky to work with the best in the business. Without you all, there would have been no JOY in the Ride. Your talent, passion and commitment made us better each day. We were so lucky to share this space with you all.

“We thank you all for joining us on this epic adventure. We will cherish the incredible memories and we will miss you beyond measure. We hope to pop-up again in some form in the coming months.  So, stay tuned.  In the meantime, remember: Life’s a trip. Enjoy the Ride!”

Beyond that email, Amy told “06880” that despite always paying on time, she and Rhodie are being held personally liable for bank loans that were put in default simply because they could not afford to reopen all locations during the pandemic.

“Our industry has truly been decimated,” Amy notes. “In addition to our closure, we’ve heard of a lot of our competitors closing recently.

“The GYMS ACT never passed — and the fitness industry is left in shambles. Despite business improving, it’s impossible to generate enough revenue to cover the costs of the many months we were closed, and the repercussions / ripple effects.”

JoyRide’s leaders (from left): Becky Cerroni, Rhodie Lorenz and Amy Hochhauser.

The owners encourage people to use remaining class or gift cards in their account.

Meanwhile, JoyRide’s New Haven studio remains open, at 199 Crown Street. It’s on the market. Anyone interested should email amy@joyridestudio.com.

Finally, Amy says, she and Rhodie hope to do a deal with another gym or facility in Westport, to carry on the JoyRide brand and bring their great instructors in to teach classes. Feel free to reach out at the above email.

“06880” promises to share some hoped-for good news.

(NOTE: An unlimited “last hurrah” package is available, for $99. Click here for details. Click here for the JoyRide website.) 

JoyRide moved classes outdoors during the pandemic.

Big “06880” News: We’re Tax-Exempt!

In just a few months since becoming a non-profit, “06880” has been more than just a blog.

We partnered with the Westport Library on an educational evening about Ukraine. We helped arrange a meeting between one of the Little Rock 9 civil rights pioneers, and students in Westport and Bridgeport. We sponsored the 1st-ever downtown Holiday Stroll.

And now that the IRS has granted us official tax-exempt status, we’re poised to do even more.

For 13 years, readers’ contributions have generously funded “06880.” Donations support all aspects of the blog, including writing, web hosting fees, software, and more.

Now — with donors receiving tax deductions, plus opportunities for corporate matching grants and foundation funds — we can begin hosting events; developing more community-wide educational, entertainment and inspirational programs; hiring writers for fuller coverage, and supporting worthy causes.

Thanks for your support so far. We hope our tax-exempt status eencourages other individuals, plus foundations, to help. Click here to donate. Click here for more on “06880”‘s mission, and our board of directors.

PS: Mark your calendar: Thursday, July 21. That’s our annual “06880” blog party, at Compo Beach.

And — thanks to our non-profit status — this year the town is allowing a limited number of out-of-towners (without beach stickers) in for free. See you there!

(Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

“06880” Podcast: Tom Henske

Money.

It — and what it buys — is everywhere in Westport. From homes, cars and clothes to investments, vacations and college tuition, we think and talk about it. A lot.

Many Westporters make their living helping others make more of it.

But most of us don’t know how to talk about it. Especially with kids.

Tom Henske knows how to make it — and discuss it. A noted wealth manager and financial planning advisor who now consults on life insurance matters with high-net worth individuals, he is on a mission to educate parents on how to talk about $$$$ with their children.

He’s developed a program called “Money-Smart.” He’s a frequent contributor to CNBC. The other day, he sat down in the Westport Library’s Trefz Forum, for a Verso Studios “06880” podcast.

It was a fascinating, informative chat. The half hour you’ll invest in watching the video below may may pay dividends for years to come.

Antwayn’s Story

Westport Lifestyle magazine does a great job highlighting the beauty and benefits of Westport.

But it does not neglect the more human, less talked-about, often unseen parts of life in our town.

This month, editor Robin Moyer Chung wrote about homelessness. It’s an important piece. Here’s a slightly edited version: 

Antwayn, like every other Gillespie Center client, never thought he’d be homeless. Four years ago he had a full-time job, a home in Bridgeport with his girlfriend, a newborn and a toddler. Then one evening in March he lost everything.

Please take a moment to consider that we live in the town in which Antwayn briefly lived, but in an alternate universe. We enjoy advantages, trust and liberties that he did not.

Antwayn, today. (Photo/Mindy Briar)

Antwayn’s parents divorced when he was young. His mom raised him in Stamford. At 12 years old “I thought I knew everything,” he admits. His friend, Pookie, was in a gang, the Ebony Kings, and persuaded him to join. For initiation, 4 older members jumped him. He fought back. He walked away with a “busted lip” and an indoctrination into the Ebony Kings family.

He willingly assumed the life of a gang member. If a brother said “Jump that guy” he did.

When he turned 13 his mom sent him to live with his dad in Georgia. “I was furious,” he recalls. “But she knew I’d end up getting shot or shooting someone. At 13 you don’t understand the consequences.”

Today, he concedes that his mother saved his life by shipping him South.

He graduated from Jenkins High School in Savannah. At 19 he had 2 kids with 2 different women. “No one was teaching me anything,” Antwayn says. “My dad let me do anything.”

After graduating high school he earned a certificate and worked as a daycare assistant at the YMCA. Then he worked as an assistant camp counselor. “I love kids,” he says.

In 2003 he moved back to Connecticut and lived with his mother. He worked at Party City, then got a gig at Costco in 2007. He worked these 2 jobs for 10 years. “I was earning $21.95 at Costco,” he proudly says.

He later moved in with his girlfriend. Together they had 2 kids, Aalyah (now 7) and Antwayn (now 4). Then that day in March, after he returned from work, his girlfriend kicked him out of their home, and the police arrested him for violating a restraining order.

Antwayn couldn’t pay the $25,000 bond so they locked him in a cell for 28 days. “You don’t want to go jail,” he cautions, shaking his head.

Costco fired him for work abandonment. He had no home, no access to his money. His car was towed shortly after his arrest, his mother had no room for him in her home, and no business would hire a man fresh from the slammer. And he was not allowed to see his kids.

The only thing he had on the 29th day, finally out of prison, was his innocence. Not that it mattered. “I was confused. Lost. I lost it all in the snap of a finger.”

Devastated and shell-shocked, he dialed 211, the hotline for essential community services. They guided him toward a shelter in Bridgeport. For 15 days he lined up at 5 p.m. to get a bed for the night. Then he was granted room in Gillespie.

The Gillespie Center, in downtown Westport.

After 6 months in Gillespie, program manager Ryan Soto located and contacted Antwayn’s father in Oregon. He agreed to share his home with his son. So Antwayn relocated across the country. 33 days later he returned, shaken by his father’s violent mental health issues and veiled threats.

Again, he found himself with nowhere to turn. By miracle, Ryan discovered he was back in the system. He got a room for Antwayn in Gillespie. During the long months of his second residency he was pessimistic and untethered. Then slowly, with Ryan’s help, he took the difficult, unnerving steps to overcome fear and submit to the power of hope. Ryan says, “He says ‘Ryan, you give great advice so I’m going to listen to you.’”

Then Antwayn became one of Gillespie’s favorite success stories.

Gillespie found him affordable housing and hired him part-time in the food pantry. He serves meals, cleans up, assists with food and clothing donations. Every morning he comes an hour early — a free hour, no one pays him — to make coffee, clean the refrigerator, whatever needs to be done.

Antwayn, at work in the food pantry. 

“I want to stay working here,” he says. “Miss Pat’s worked here for 17 years. I want to beat her record.” He’s strong, good, and happy. His eyes light up when speaking of his manager, Ryan, “Man he’s the best boss I ever had in my life. He knows how to talk to people with good respect.” Then adds, “I love this job.”

On April 5, after a slew of court appearances, he won sole custody of his son and daughter. He beams, “I’m so happy! I take it day by day — everything’s fresh. It hasn’t been a week yet!

When he has a moment to talk to Gillespie residents he tells them to look on the bright side, to pick themselves up and start over. He tells his story to help others like him find the smallest toehold in the crag of hope, so they can, one day, follow him to the summit.

About that summit: Helen McAlinden, director of Homes with Hope, nominated Antwayn for the Carol E. Walter Think, Be, Lead, Change Award, from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Recipients are honored for their
perseverance and drive.

Antwayn won, and received a plaque last June. He calls that one of the proudest moments of his life.

(To learn more about the Gillespie Center and its parent organization, Homes with Hope, click here.)

Antwayn and Aalyah. 

Brian Stern On Spending: “Don’t Tap The Brakes. But Be Cautious.”

The good news: Westport is in excellent financial shape.

The bad news: We’ve got some big capital expenses coming up. At least one new elementary school; Longshore renovation; a new firehouse or two — those are some big-ticket items.

The bottom-line news: It’s time to think about them.

Brian Stern

At least one Westporter is. Brian Stern has served on the Board of Finance since 2009, and is a former chair. He earned a Harvard MBA and spent 35 years with Xerox, beginning as a finance director and progressing to president of 4 divisions. After retiring in 2007 he invested in and managed 2 high-tech start-up companies.

The other day, we chatted about town finances.

Thanks to continued good governance and a strong tax  base, he said, our financials are “very strong. Most towns would love to have the grand list increases we’ve had.” They’re consistently 1 to 2.5%; next year’s is 2.2%.

The tax levy is $190 million on property. That’s one positive effect of teardowns, Stern says: Demolishing a house that’s $800,000 on the grand list, and replacing it with a $6 million one, enables us to keep the same mill rate year after year.

New apartment buildings on the Post Road help. So will converting the former Save the Children non-profit on Wilton Road to high-priced condos.

“Our reserves have never been higher,” Stern notes. “We can withstand any imaginable fiscal crisis.” And our AAA bond rating won’t change.

“All signs are good,” he reiterates. “We are, and will be, a fundamentally attractive town.”

The Bankside Condos on Wilton Road — seen here in an artist’s rendering — will add to Westport’s grand list.

But Stern repeats the warning bells he sounded at the May 11 Board of Finance meeting.

The town’s 5-year capital plan includes many important and “justifiable, well thought out” projects. Yet taken together, he says, they’ll run up a “massive bill, unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Through no one’s fault, he foresees “dramatically increased spending” for the town and Board of Education budgets. Together with national trends like increasing interest rates — from below 2%, to 4% — and rising inflation, the combination will be costly.

Stern says that the town’s current debt is $105 million. Bond costs have been in the @% range; the most recent came in at 3.4%.

Our current debt service of $11.5 million a year is about 5.2% of the total operating budget. That works out to about $3,870 per Westport man, woman and child.

Looking ahead to projects like a new Long Lots Elementary School ($50 million to  $70 million), and possibly a new Coleytown El; other school projects like a roof at Staples high; a $40 million firehouse; $20 million for much-needed Longshore improvements; bridges; the $12 million downtown master plan — and factoring in state grants of about 11% — Stern sees our total debt increasing from $105 million to $350-$375 million, over 10 years.

Long Lots Elementary School is nearly 70 years old. It is need of replacement or renovation. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

Debt service will increase proportionately, from $11.5 million to $40 million. Over a decade or so, per capita debt will rise from $3,870 to $13,500.

“The decision to build is much easier than the decision to finance,” he notes. “Whatever we decide will be with us for 25 years.”

And what happens if we get a “surprise,” as we did with the sudden need to rebuild Coleytown Middle School a few years ago? “Our risk profile would change,” Stern acknowledges.

It would change too if certain projects that are not currently in the capital plan are added in. There are currently “zero dollars,” he says, for things like Baron’s South and affordable housing.

This is not the first time Westport has faced several big projects at once, however. Stern points to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when construction of the new Staples High and Bedford Middle School, plus the conversion Saugatuck El, among others — rocketed our debt from $57 million to $175 million.

The new Staples High School was completed in 2005. It is a modern building that works well in the 21st century.

People like Steve Halstead and Dan Kail — town leaders who lived through those projects, and their financing — are still around, Stern says. “We should talk to them, and ask about their experiences. Would they have done anything differently? There’s not much that’s free today, but their advice would be.”

Stern notes too, “When we build a school, we get something in return. There was a benefit from those new buildings. These are important investments in our community.”

Of course, they are investments by one generation that subsidize another. Of course too, that’s always the case.

“Someone paid for us,” Stern says. “We have to pay it forward.”

Though some of the projects may slip to a later date, Stern does not view the capital plan as a wish list. “We need these,” he says. Still, he asks, are they all needed at the funding level requested? For example, he wonders, can Long Lots be renovated for less than it would cost to construct an entirely new school? Perhaps we can do with a $25 million firehouse, rather than one costing $40 million.

He urges a “creative” look at spending. Greenwich, for example, pays down its debt faster than the traditional 25 years. Of course, that increases taxes in the short term.

Perhaps the town could consider selling some assets, Stern says. He points to a portion of Longshore near the river that is now “brambles, weeds and a parking lot.” It could fetch $5-$10 million, he thinks.

Riverfront property at Longshore is now used as a parking lot. In the early days of COVID, teenagers socialized there in a socially distant way. (Photo/Kimberly Paris)

Stern is not providing any answers. He just wants Westporters to “understand consequences, and make decisions with spending and financing in mind.”

He urges town officials to “keep their heads up and their eyes open — not stick them in the sand.”

Despite the warning signs, he says, “we’ve been through this before. We have a great high school and middle schools, and amenities. This is why I live here.

“We’ve decided, as a community, that we will pay for these things. People don’t always like to talk about the price of things.

“I’m not telling them to tap the brakes. But I am saying: Be cautious.’

Town Budget Passed; Protests Are Past

Last week, the RTM unanimously approved the 2022-23 town budget, of about $222.8 million.

That could be the most underrated, underreported — and astonishing — story of the year.

Each spring for decades, budget battles consumed us. The Board of Finance slashed the Board of Education request. The Board of Ed fought back, with the backing of some — but not all — residents.

Parents argued for and against teachers and/or administrators. Westporters with no kids in school screamed at those who did, and at each other.

The next step — final approval by the Representative Town Meeting — was just as brutal.

Petitions were filed. Referendums were held. An entire political party — the Taxwatchers — formed in the crucible of budget wars.

Dick Leonard, Westport Education Association president, during a budget battle.

Things calmed down in recent years. Still, town boards and the RTM did not always see eye to eye. Department heads were forced to plead their cases, sometimes for just a few thousand dollars.

As Washington has become more polarized, Westport politicians play nice. This year’s requests sailed through, with only a couple of adjustments made.

The numbers seem large: almost $138.7 million for education, about $84.1 million for other town operations,, plus the Library, health and transit districts, and Earthplace.

But the people who make the decisions — Democrats, Republicans and the non-partisan RTM (no Taxwatchers) — seem to agree that Westport is in very sound fiscal shape.

They like the bangs they get for our bucks.

Residents must agree. Peeps in town made very few peeps throughout the process.

Sometimes no news is good news. Washington, take note!

Roundup: VersoFest, Tax Holiday, Downshifters …

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Yesterday — the middle of the Westport Library’s 3-day VersoFest — included a keynote speech by Michael Jai White.

The actor/writer/producer/martial artist/former Westport personal trainer described his upbringing in Bridgeport, his career in the movie industry, and his quest to bring a full-scale, state-of-the-art, employing-hundreds studio and production facility to Connecticut.

“I was not put on this earth to make a billion dollars,” he told the crowd. “I’m here to share a billion dollars.”

Michael Jai White (Photo/Dan Woog)

Another highlight from yesterday: the announcement that Tammy Winser is the winner of the contest to design a cover for Verso Studios’ new record label

It’s the first label for any library, anywhere in the country. Music will be produced at the Westport Library’s high-tech studio.

Tammy’s work was chosen from dozens of entries. Here it is:

Meanwhile, all the album covers entered in the contest were shown on the Library’s big screen, prior to the big reveal:

(Photo/Dan Woog)

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Yesterday was also the Rotary Day of Service.

Westport’s Sunrise Club gathered (in early morning hail) at grungy I-95 Exit 17.

Sixteen members (and 3 spouses) collected 17 large bags of trash, along the roadside and ramps. Their haul included liquor bottles, masks, bumpers — and a passport. Westport’s Parks & Recreation Department hauled it away.

Numerous passing drivers honked, and gave thumb’s-up. Now all they have to do is stop tossing liquor bottles, masks and passports out their windows.

Sunrise Rotary members Bruce Fritz and Paul Keblish clean up Charles Street …

… while Maria Fraioli snags a stray bumper.

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Last month, the state General Assembly suspended Connecticut’s 25-cent gas tax. They also added a second “Sales Tax-Free Week” to the annual summer holiday.

The spring “Sales Tax-Free Week” begins today (Sunday, April 10). It runs through Saturday (April 16).

This week, sales of clothing and footwear costing less than $100 will not be subject to sales tax.

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Westporters were out in force yesterday, taking advantage of the nice weather to beautify their land.

Among them: a woman at the historic Jesup Road property just west of the police station.

(Photo/Robin Myers)

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In the 1950s and early ’60s, the Downshifters were Westport’s premier hot rod club.

The club is long gone. So are hot rods. And the members are getting up in age.

But the ones who are still around have a new project: varsity jackets.

They’re ordering those sharp-looking jackets, complete with logo. And you don’t have to be a former member to order one.

Contact Morgan Smith for details: aeronaca33@gmail.com. The deadline is April 15.

So you’ve got to hurry. But don’t speed.

Downshifters jacket.

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Staples High School Class of 1971 graduate Bonnie Erickson offers today’s “Westport … Naturally” treat.

She spotted this beauty in the Saugatuck River, near the Library Riverwalk:

(Photo/Bonnie Erickson)

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And finally … the Westport Library’s VersoFest ends tonight, with what is sure to be a kick-ass performance by Selwyn Birchwood. If you haven’t yet heard of the rising blues artist — you will. Click here for more information, and tickets.

Westport Fill-Up: It’s A Gas

Last month, Governor Lamont signed emergency legislation — passed unanimously by the state Senate and House — suspending Connecticut’s excise tax on gasoline from April 1 to June 30. The state collected 25 cents per gallon.

The legislation says that retailers’ failure to reduce the per-gallon price of gasoline by that amount will be considered an “unfair or deceptive trade practice.”

Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce director Matthew Mandell decided to see which local gas stations followed the rules.

He took photos of several Westport gas stations on the Thursday evening of March 31, then again on the afternoon of April 1.

The Shell station across from the Westport Country Playhouse dropped its prices by 25 cents …

Mandell says: “WCBS radio reports that stations pay the tax upon delivery of their fuel, so prices might not come down until the next delivery.

“Nonetheless, the majority of stations did indeed change their prices — some 20 cents, some 25 cents, some even 30 cents.

“Some did not change their price at all.

“What should also be noted is the difference in prices overall — up to $1 per gallon — and that some places have different prices for cash and credit transactions.”

Here are the stations in Mandell’s cross-section:

  • Citgo  $4.13 to $3.88: 25 cents
  • Cumberland Farms Hillspoint Road:  $4.13 to $3.93: 20 cents
  • Cumberland Farms Bulkley Avenue South: $4.13 to $3.93: 20 cents
  • Exxon: $4.23 to $3.93: 30 cents
  • Mobil: $5.27 to $5.27: no change
  • Phillips: $4.29 to $3.99: 30 cents
  • Shell downtown: $4.09 to $3.84: 25 cents
  • Shell Maple Avenue South: $4.87 to $4.87: no change
  • Sunoco Riverside: $4.29 to $3.99: 30 cents

… while the Shell near Maple Avenue showed no change.

Teaming Up For Genius Ukraine Help

It was one of those small-world/Westport moments.

Years ago Jeff Manchester met Mehmet Sezgin, a potential banking partner, in Istanbul.

They discovered a connection: Jeff graduated from Staples High School in 1985, Five years earlier, Mehmet was a Turkish exchange student there.

Jeff Manchester

Jeff moved back to Westport several years ago. Mehmet is now in Miami. But they’re collaborating on a project with global implications. It’s a way for American credit card users to raise money to help Ukraine, through purchases at 20,000 retailers and restaurants — including several here in town. It aids Ukrainian merchants too.

Jeff has over 25 years experience in the “payments space,” as an executive vice president and the leader of card programs at GE Money. He’s now in charge of business development at myGini. The  company that helps banks and financial institutions provide loyalty programs and personalized promotions to customers.

When a consumer downloads the Worthy app on their phone, and enrolls their Mastercard or Visa credit or debit cards, whenever they dine or shop at a participating merchant, they get cash back — and cash will be sent to UNICEF for Ukrainian children too.

For example, one Westport merchant — Iganzio’s — offers 4% cash back: 2% to the purchaser, 2% to the charity.

Ignazio’s Pizza helps customers earn cash back — and help Ukrainian children.

Other Westport participants include

  • Capuli
  • Finalmente
  • Julian’s
  • Mexica
  • Pane e Bene
  • Romanacci
  • Rye Ridge Deli
  • Shake Shack
  • Via Sforza
  • Village Bagels
  • Vineyard Vines

In addition, for any Ukrainian-owned small business in the US that joins myGini’s network to offer cash back to American cardholders, myGini will waive set-up and marketing fees. myGini will also match that merchant’s total amount given as cash back to consumers, and donate it to UNICEF USA.

It’s a win-win-win: for consumers, merchants, and (especially) Ukrainian children.

Thanks to Jeff Manchester and fellow Staples alum Mehmet Sezgin, myGini is pure genius.

The myGini app.

Budget Time!

If you like numbers, facts and statistics — plus a healthy dose of pie charts and bar graphs — this post is for you.

The 1st Selectwoman’s proposed Fiscal Year 2023 budget is online. It includes revenue and expenses from the past year. In 320 pages, it tells the tale of Westport better than any “06880” story ever could.

The budget begins with a few pages of fascinating facts. Our population of 28,016 makes us the 12th fastest growing of all 170 Connecticut municipalities.

Our daytime population swells to 34,851 — meaning many more folks commute in than commute out.

Our 9,916 households include 68% families, 14% seniors living alone, and just 3% singles.

Our median income is $206,466. A full 51% of Westport households earn $200,000 or more. Just 7% earn less than $25,000. An eye-popping 85% of Westporters own their own homes.

A graphic display of Westport income.

But most of the budget is — well, the budget.

It includes $23 million for Public Safety, $19 million in Pensions, OPEB and Insurance, $12 million for Public Works, $7.2 million for Parks & Recreation (much of that offset by income), $1.4 million for Human Services — and just $528,000 for Health, and $343,000 for the Westport Transit District.

The biggest item, of course, is Education ($130 million). The rest of the town budget is $78 million.

Are those figures too high? Too low? Just right?

Find out for yourself. Click here for the full link.

And if you’ve got an opinion: Click “Comments” below, of course.

But you can also attend the Board of Finance meetings March 8 (7:30 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) and March 9 (if needed for the Selectwoman’s budget, and March 10 (same time and place) for the Board of Education budget.

The meetings will also be livestreamed at http://www.westportct.gov (select the “How Do I” heading, then “Watch Town Meetings”), as well as Optimum channel 79 and Frontier channel 6020. Comments may be emailed to BOFcomments@westportct.gov.

The Westport Transit District gets about $343,000 from the town.