Category Archives: Economy

Facing Addiction, Ringing The NYSE Bell

Last week, Facing Addiction rang the closing New York Stock Exchange bell.

It was a big moment for the national resource and advocacy group, working to solve America’s public health crisis. With Wall Street paying attention, organization officials hope, corporate America may follow.

Westporter Jim Hood — Facing Addiction’s co-founder and CEO — at the New York Stock Exchange.

Jim Hood — Facing Addiction’s co-founder and CEO — is a longtime Westporter. He helped start the non-profit after his 20-year-old son Austin died of an accidental drug overdose.

The ceremony was a public event. But Jim made it very personal too.

On the stock exchange wall, he left this achingly simple note:

Michael Moritz: Young Westporters Must Be Active World Citizens

Michael Moritz is a 2014 graduate of Staples High School. Now a senior at Ithaca College, he’s a member of its Futures Club. Many Westporters will automatically assume that means money and markets.

Nope. Ithaca’s Futures Club members are social activists who focus on the ideals of empathy, perspective-taking, and mindfulness. Members believe young people have the power to challenge and change the future.

This turbulent summer, Michael reflected on his home town, his college community, and the broader, outside-the-bubble world. He writes:

Growing up here, Staples High School put me and my peers in a position that we never second guessed. It is not until we reach out of our Westport world that we see human life through a new lens.

That is when we notice serious differences in the quality of life across our country. Most families in Westport can afford health care. Yet our new health care system proposed leaving more than 20 million Americans without basic health care plans.

In Westport we have the choice of Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market or nice restaurants on the river. Yet food deserts exist all over our country — places where fresh food and groceries cannot be found.

Some local supermarkets’ food looks too good to eat. Not far from Westport are food deserts.

Staples High School is amazing. But most American public education is not like ours. We should acknowledge American society is wrestling with these institutional imbalances, along with racism, hatred, violent acts and climate destruction — among many other deep-rooted issues we are working through.

I love Westport. Peace and beauty are two words that help me describe my home place.

I acknowledge it represents a very small part of American life. It may hurt to have this conversation, and we might be tempted to turn away from it. But we are privileged — at the expense of most people of our country, who can’t have what we have.

At Staples High School, we did not talk about this elephant in the room. Our facilities are extremely nice. But what about in inner city Bridgeport? And do we care?

Staples does not look like many high schools.

I see 2 divides. One is economic. The other is racial. But they work together to create a violent monster of America that privileges a very small percentage of citizens, and leaves the rest in the dust.

The median income for white people in our country is $60,250; for black people it is $35,400. The same study found that 26% of black people live in poverty. The percentage for whites is 10%. In other categories — including household wealth, home ownership and unemployment — whites are also favored.

Then there is human-induced climate destruction to our planet. If we continue using fossil fuels as we do now, all major cities in our country that are anywhere close to water will be under water by 2050. The world is dying way, way faster than any climate change model ever predicted.

Are solar panels just too expensive? As it turns out, we now see a potential plan for panels to be installed at the high school.

Michael Moritz

If you are struck by this, know that parents and students of Westport can — and in some ways are expected to — change our country, so that all people of all skin colors are included and valued in the quality of life that we enjoy in our privileged bubble.

The way we do that is by being socially active. That is the route through which we can bring justice, equality and inclusion to all parts of our country.

Where does this leave us kids from Westport? Right in the middle of it. Those in the most privileged situations have an amazing amount of influence over how our world will look in the coming years. I’m talking about myself, my friends and you or your children in the Westport public schools.

Here’s what you can do, as a young citizen of Westport and the world: Practice and live empathy, perspective taking and mindfulness. Spend less time on your phone.

The next step: Decide to have a gentle inquiry on what your school and town is doing to make the world a better place. That means asking your school. Call Town Hall. Talk to people until you get to the person you can talk to about whatever issue may be on your mind.

Whether it is “what is Westport doing to cut carbon emissions and become more renewable and sustainable?” or any other issue: Ask. Keep asking.

I will do my part, alongside you.

Police Union Sends SOS To Town

The Westport Police are always there for us.

But now, many officers fear, the town may not be there for them.

A member of the police union board tells “06880” that the department is in the midst of pension negotiations. He says they’re not going well.

The union member explains that when current officers joined the force, their contract called for them to pay 10% of their base salary into a pension fund. That’s among the highest in Connecticut.

In return, they were guaranteed retirement at half of their final salary with 20 years’ service — while being responsible for their own medical costs.

Pension benefits are calculated using only base salaries — no overtime.

A patrolman’s maximum salary is about $84,900. Police officers don’t receive Social Security; they stopped paying into it after a contract change many years ago.

Half of the base salary works out to roughly $42,000. But after paying 40% of medical benefits and taxes, he says, that’s hardly enough to live on here.

The current pension contract expired July 1, 2016. (A separate work contract has already been ratified.)

A number of the 64 officers on the force chafe at the town’s offer. “We work midnight shifts, weekends and holidays,” the officer says.

“We give up a lot of family time. Any traffic stop or emergency call could be our last. We can be sued civilly. Our life expectancy is less than people who are not police officers.”

Police officers never know what they’ll encounter during a traffic stop.

They’ve made some concessions in negotiations — including raising the retirement age from 49 to 52.

But talks stalled. The union’s final offer was rejected by the town.

Now they’re in arbitration. Three people — one selected by the town, one by the police union, the third neutral — will rule on one offer or the other.

The union board member says that if citizens contact their RTM members and first selectman, the town has the option to pull out of arbitration.

He notes that Westport is in “great shape” financially. The grand list has increased 15.4% since 2010.

“The great school system, parks, beaches and attractions make Westport a desirable place to live,” he says. “But they come at a price. That price is your employees. Without dedicated and hard-working employees, none of the things that make Westport unique would hold true.

“People think there’s a golden parachute. The reality is very different. We just want what we were promised.”

The union board member believes that “the fair and most logical thing the town should do is leave the current employees’ benefit alone.”

The town will change new hires’ pensions. The half-pension, half-401k hybrid “will be in Westport’s pocket going forward,” he notes.

“We took this job with the expectation we’d have certain pension benefits at retirement,” he adds. “We see this as a slap in the face to people who provide tremendous service to the town.”

He concludes, “Whenever someone in Westport needs help, they call the police. Now the Westport police need your help. Contact your RTM member, or speak directly to the first selectmen. Let them know you care.”

For Wyatt Davis, State Budget Cuts Literally Hit Home

Wyatt Davis got the most out of Staples High School.

He hosted a weekly radio show on WWPT-FM. He was an avid member of Best Buddies and the Photography Club, and the football team’s most ardent fan. Nearly every staff member and student knew him — and all loved him.

Not bad for a young man who — because of cerebral palsy — cannot speak, or use his extremities.

Wyatt Davis in 2011, at the WWPT-FM controls.

Wyatt is 21 years old. That’s the age limit for high school special education services. He graduated last June (while also attending community college).

In normal times, he’d move to a program like STAR. Like similar organizations around the state serving those with intellectual/developmental disabilities, its services would help Wyatt transition to the “real world.”

But these are not normal times.

In the absence of a state budget, Wyatt — and over 200 recent high school graduates like him — have been stranded in a hellish limbo.

“Wyatt uses a wheelchair for mobility, and needs 24/7 assistance to meet his basic health care needs,” says STAR executive director Katie Banzhaf.

But, she adds, “I don’t think of Wyatt that way. To me and all of us who know him, we see an amazing young man who loves photography (he takes great photos with adaptive devices), loves his iPad, has a great sense of humor, and will absolutely charm his way into your heart.”

Wyatt Davis and his friend Taylor Harrington, watching a Staples baseball game.

Through STAR — which he became involved with last year — he has attended photography and music classes, and engaged in many activities.

But state legislators have not yet passed a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Governor Malloy’s interim budget cut funding for places like STAR by up to 18%.

Now Wyatt mostly stays home.

His parents have paid privately for STAR services, 3 days a week. They have other pressing needs — including Wyatt’s other health expenses, and a daughter in law school — and cannot afford that for much longer.

A little snow doesn’t stop Wyatt Davis from enjoying the slopes.

The other option is for his father or mother to quit their job, to stay home with Wyatt. But that won’t help him grow, develop and make friends.

“We’re trying to raise awareness and funds from the community so Wyatt can return to STAR for at least 1 to 2 months,” Banzhaf says. “That will give us time to find additional resources, so he can stay as long as he needs us.”

United  Way of Coastal Fairfield County — and an anonymous donor’s contribution of $1,000 — have ensured that after major hip surgery last month, Wyatt can join STAR again next next week.

The organization hopes other neighbors and friends will help too. To donate — or for more information — call Peter Saverine, STAR director of philanthropy, at 203-846-9581, ext. 302, or email psaverine@starct.org.

 

Jacob Meisel’s Stormy Career

Westport is the hot spot for young weather forecasters.

The other day, “06880” highlighted Scott Pecoriello — the 2015 Staples High School grad whose WeatherOptics app offers a new way to look at meteorology.

Jacob Meisel was 2 years ahead of Scott. In high school, Jacob earned thousands of followers — and legendary status — with his accurate-to-the-snowflake wintry predictions of when schools would close.

He graduated this spring from Harvard University, with a focus on climate and politics. He minored in energy and the environment.

Along the way, Jacob’s “SWCTWeather.com” — his original, Southwestern Connecticut-centric creation — morphed into something much more.

Jacob Meisel

After his first year at Harvard, Jacob got a call from Justin Walters. The co-founder of Bespoke Investment Group — a Westport resident — said he and his wife used SWCTWeather often to plan daycare, nanny times and more for their preschool kids.

He asked if Jacob would be interested in developing a subscription service.

Of course! That fall, he launched. For $15 a month, or $99 a year, subscribers in Fairfield, New Haven and Westchester counties received several updates a day during storms.

The next summer, Jacob — who had developed an interest in how energy markets are driven by weather — interned at Bespoke. He studied topics like how winter heating and summer air conditioning affected the natural gas industry.

He now works full-time at Bespoke. There he runs 2 businesses, under the Weather Services LLC umbrella.

One is his hyperlocal site. He partners with small businesses, schools, libraries and others to provide “impact analyses” to help determine opening and closing times, inventory and more.

He also analyzes weather trends — and develops custom reports — for corporate clients.

“Say a winter will be warmer than normal,” he explains. “There’s less salt on the road. Cars don’t get as worn down. They’re repaired less. That drives an auto parts store’s earnings down.”

Bloomberg interviewed Jacob Meisel, about weather-related trends.

Another business — a construction company — might use Jacob’s data to schedule roadwork.

Clothing retailers want to know about, say, October’s weather. That tells them whether to stock their shelves with sweaters, or keep shorts on display.

“Every day when I wake up, there’s new data and patterns,” Jacob says. “In high school, when I wrote 2,000-word posts on what type of snow was falling, I did it for fun.”

Weather has always been fun for Jacob Meisel.

Now it’s his business. Rain or shine.

 

When Comics Were King

Over the years, Westport has been known nationally for a few things.

During the Civil War, our onions helped Northern troops stave off illness. In the ’70s and ’80s we were awash in marketing companies.

And for a longer period of time — the 1950s through ’90s — we were part of “the comic strip capital of the world.”

Vanity Fair’s September issue explores that funny period in our history. Writer Cullen Murphy — whose father was one of those illustrious illustrators — looks at all of Fairfield County as the world capital. It was

where most of the country’s comic-strip artists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators chose to make their home. The group must have numbered 100 or more, and it constituted an all-embracing subculture …. In the conventional telling, the milieu of Wilton and Westport, Greenwich and Darien, was the natural habitat of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — and I was certainly aware of the commuters who took the train into Manhattan every morning from my own hometown of Cos Cob. But, for me, those salarymen with their briefcases seemed like outlandish outliers.

Murphy cites Westport’s “large cluster” of cartoonists Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Leonard Starr (“On Stage,” “Little Orphan Annie”), Dick Wingert (“Hubert”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”) and Mel Casson (“Mixed Singles/Boomer”).

Bernie Fuchs’ famous studio. It was demolished earlier this year.

Murphy’s father compared Bernie Fuchs to Degas. The writer adds: “Fuchs’s career was all the more remarkable because he had lost 3 fingers on his drawing hand in an accident when he was a teenager.”

Murphy does not mention Curt Swan (“Superman”). I’m sure he’s missed others.

From the 2002 book “Curt Swan: a Life in Comics”

Murphy offers a few reasons why this area attracted so many illustrators: lack of a state income tax; affordable homes, and of course the presence of other artists.

It was solitary work — which is why so many Fairfield County illustrators got together in groups, here and on Wednesdays when they brought their art to their editors in the city. They talked about their work. They also ate and drank.

Murphy notes:

One defining reality about the cartoonists was that although their characters —Beetle Bailey, Snoopy, Prince Valiant, Blondie — were known worldwide, they themselves passed through life more or less anonymously. Unlike actors or sports figures or reality-TV stars, they were never stopped on the street. They didn’t have a “gal” to protect them or “people” to speak for them.

Semi-domesticated, they depended heavily on their families, especially wives, who in many ways held the entire enterprise together, from basic finances to rudimentary social cues…. Life was interrupted mainly by mundane chores. More than a few collectors have bought original comic strips and found notations like “prescription ready” or “diapers, bologna, Chesterfields” in the margins.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Murphy writes:

The concentration of cartoon talent in Fairfield County was a product of special circumstances, and those circumstances have disappeared. Newspaper comic strips are not the force they were, and few magazines still publish gag cartoons.

The New York City newspaper strike of 1962–63 led to the demise of the Hearst flagship, the New York Journal-American, whose funny pages were the best in the country. Making it there was like opening at the Roxy. Now it was gone.

New York remains the center of the publishing industry, but the railroad is no longer a lifeline: the Internet has meant that artists can send their work from anywhere. Connecticut has a state income tax now, though that’s not what has made Fairfield County unaffordable — Wall Street is responsible for that.

Westport, of course, is now a financial capital — both as headquarters to the world’s largest hedge fund, and home to many financial executives.

I wonder what kind of cartoon Bud Sagendorf, Stan Drake, Mel Casson or any of the others would draw about that.

(Click here to read the entire Vanity Fair story. Hat tips: Doug Bonnell and Paul Delano)

From comics to capitalism: Westport is now home to Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund.

Backpacks For A Cause

Back-to-school shopping is seldom the grinning, hand-holding experience portrayed in TV and print ads.

backpacksKids worry they’ll have the “wrong” notebooks or pens.  Parents fear they’ll forget something important, and their kid’s teacher will think they’re idiots.

Other Westporters have a deeper, more realistic fear:  They can’t pay for everything their kids need.

Fortunately, Westport’s Human Services Department is on the case.

Its annual Back to School program, offering supplies to eligible families, is underway.

The program provides gift cards to income-eligible families with children in the Westport schools. Families can then buy new backpacks and school supplies together. Actual new backpacks can be donated too.

Last year, 189 kids from 118 families received assistance. That’s about 10 full classrooms of kids.

The program depends entirely on the generosity of individuals and organizations.  Tax-deductible monetary donations — of any amount — made payable to “Families in Need Fund” (memo: “Backpacks”) can be sent to, or dropped off at, Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave. (Town Hall), Westport CT 06880.

Gift cards of any amount to Target, Walmart and Staples Office Supply are appreciated too. They (and new backpacks) can be dropped off at Room 200 of Town Hall weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., now through August 18.

To find out if you qualify for assistance, contact Margaret Piheiro at 341-1050, or email emilton@westportct.gov.

8-30g Relief? Not So Fast.

It seemed like welcome news last month, when the General Assembly overrode Governor Malloy’s veto of a bill that would loosen restrictions of 8-30g. Part of the state’s affordable housing standards, 8-30g incentivizes municipalities to make 10 percent of their housing stock “affordable.”

Officials in Westport — which has more affordable housing than counts under narrow 8-30g regulations — thought the override meant they’d qualify for a moratorium.

But the devil may be in the details.

According to Partnership for Strong Communities — a statewide policy and advocacy organization “dedicated to ending homelessness, expanding the creation of affordable housing, and building strong communities in Connecticut” — Westport will not qualify for “eligibility relief.”

Hales Court is affordable Westport housing — though it was built before 8-30g regulations came in effect in 1990, and does not count for “points.”

The reasons are complex. The organization says:

Through September 30, 2022 a town is eligible for a moratorium from the provisions of Section 8-30g if it shows that it has added affordable housing units equal to the greater of 2 percent of the housing stock, or 50 Housing Unit Equivalent (HUE) points. Previously, the minimum number of HUE points required was 75. This change makes it easier for the state’s 64 smallest towns to achieve a moratorium.

But Westport is not among those “smallest towns.”

For towns with 20,000 or more housing units, the requirements for achieving a 2nd and subsequent moratorium have been eased by reducing the number of HUE points needed from 2% of a town’s housing units to 1.5%. The term of a 2nd or subsequent moratorium is extended from 4 to 5 years for 6 towns: Fairfield, Greenwich, Hamden, Milford, Stratford and West Hartford.

In other words — according to PSC — Westport is not helped by having 10,000 housing units less than the 20,000.

Canal Park offers affordable housing for seniors, near downtown. It too was built before 1990.

The organization continues:

Through September 30, 2022, restricted family units with at least 3 bedrooms, or in an Incentive Housing Zone (IHZ), receive a 1/4-point bonus. Restricted elderly units receive a 1/2-point bonus, if at least 60% of the restricted units counted toward the moratorium are family units.

However, no 3-bedroom units have been offered in any 8-30g in Westport.

Complex? Absolutely.

What comes next? Perhaps more “affordable housing” proposals.

Stay tuned.

Buy Nothing. Get Something. For Real.

The other day, I posted a story about Goodwill. A reader complained about high prices at the local “thrift shop.” Many readers agreed.

A few days later, alert “06880” reader Libby Kole emailed me about a less expensive alternative.

In fact, it’s free.

There’s no physical location. Instead, you find “Buy Nothing” online.

The Westport Facebook group is part of a national movement. It helps people trade, share, give and get just about anything.

Kole cited one example. She picked up boxes from a woman who just moved here. In return, Kole posted a rocking chair. (She’ll give the boxes away too, when she’s done moving herself.)

Nothing is for sale. There is no bartering. It’s just free.

The national site for Buy Nothing Groups lists things that can be given. They include clothes, dinners, plants, rabbits, laundry detergent, antiques, bikes, canoes, kombucha, flowers, eggs and beds.

People offer services too: nursing or childcare. A resting place for a dying dog. An arborist checking on trees. Guitar lessons.

Users have requested over-the-counter medicines in the middle of the night. Books, rugs and stuffed animals for a 1st grade classroom. Blackberries for wine-making (the recipient then shared his wine with the entire community). A home, while an apartment is being renovated.

Though the Westport group is just getting started, it quickly zoomed past 250 members.

The list of offerings is not as clever as the national examples. But it is typically Westport.

There’s a Sub-Zero dual zone wine cooler (“worth 4K” — though it needs $1,300 worth of evaporators). A kids’ scooter. Size 6 Crocs (“rejected by my child”). Carry-on luggage. Lice shampoo.

The $4,000 wine cooler.

It’s all there for the taking.

What gives?!

(Click here for the “Buy Nothing Westport, CT” Facebook group.)

Westport Needs Allyson Maida

Years ago — when her daughter was in middle school — Allyson Maida heard about a girl who spotted a classmate wearing a sweater the first girl owned.

Her mother had donated it to a charity, which then gave it to needy families.

When she learned that the needy girl lived in Westport, the mother told her daughter not to hang out with her. The girl told classmates too that they shouldn’t be friends with a poor girl.

That story was a defining moment in Maida’s life.

Allyson Maida

Another one came when Maida — a longtime Westport psychotherapist — heard of a mother here who faced an agonizing decision: If she invited a few of her daughter’s friends over for a small birthday celebration, the family would have to skimp on food all week.

“Stories like that rocked my world,” Maida says.

When she became president of the local chapter of Business Networking International, she asked the organization to help.

“There are homeless kids in Westport,” she told the members. “They deserve your best.”

“People were astounded,” she says, recalling the reaction. “The perception is that there’s little to no need. But there are parents here work really hard to make ends meet. They just can’t.”

Maida knew that federal, state and town programs help. She was familiar with foundations, grants, and organizations like Homes With Hope. All do great work.

But they can’t cover everything. Maida’s goal was to provide discretionary funds for things no one else did. Like a cake for a birthday party. A fidget toy. Lessons or tutors, the same as wealthy kids get.

“All we want is for every kid to feel part of the community. They should enjoy childhood,” Maida says. “And hopefully we can lessen their parents’ stress too.”

Tomorrow (Saturday, July 15, 2 p.m.), BNI hosts a “Chill Out, Grill Out and Give” event at Greens Farms Elementary School. Everyone brings their own balls, frisbees, food and drinks (grills are provided). The $10 per person entry fee will help fund Maida’s project, aiding children served through Homes With Hope.

Response from organizations like the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Clubs and Westport Woman’s Club has been excellent.

“This is about more than asking for money,” Maida says. “We want people to show up. We need to raise awareness.”

But Maida has asked for money too. She went door to door, seeking funds from local businesses.

The reaction stunned her.

The first place — Earth Animal — opened the cash register, and gave her $20.

So did UPS next door.

Party Harty and Colonial Druggists did the same, without batting an eye.

Then she tried Fresh Market. That’s a national store — not a mom-and-pop, or locally owned franchise.

The manager heard her pitch. He handed her a water. Then he gave her $20 too.

“That’s Westport,” Maida says gratefully.

So — unfortunately — is real need. Most of us never see it.

Allyson Maida does. And she’s doing what she can to help.

(Tickets are available on site for tomorrow’s event. Children under 12 are free. For more information, email allyson@allysonmaida.com. The organizing committee includes Ernie Addario of Phillip Bruce Salon; Bill Hall of Kaiser-Battistone/Wind River Environmental; David Katz of Acsia Partners; Brian Gmelin of Paychex; Mark Moeller of The Recipe of Success, and John Clapps of Brand24.)