Category Archives: Economy

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, begins Monday (August 8).

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.

Last year, 152 kids from 102 families received assistance. That’s almost 8 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 “Town of Westport/DHS Family Programs” (memo:  “Back to School”) can be sent to, or dropped off at, Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave. (Town Hall), Westport CT 06880.

Gift cards of any amount to stores like Target, Walmart, Old Navy, Staples, etc. are appreciated too. They can be dropped off at Room 200 of Town Hall weekdays, from 8:30 a.m. to 4;30 p.m.

To find out if you qualify for assistance, call Elaine Daignault: 341-1050.

Marc Lasry Is With Her

Marc Lasry — the billionaire hedge fund manager/Milwaukee Bucks co-owner — is a noted Hillary Clinton fan. Just 3 months ago, the prodigious fundraiser opened his Beachside Avenue home for an event featuring the Democratic presidential candidate’s husband, a guy named Bill.

Last night, Lasry talked up Clinton’s candidacy with PBS interviewer Charlie Rose.

Alert “06880” reader JP Vellotti watched his fellow Westporter with interest.

But one subject did not come up.

“I wonder what Lasry thinks of her line promising to make the ultra-rich pay their fair share of taxes,” Vellotti says.

Mark Lasry and Charlie Rose talk about Hillary Clinton. (Screenshot/JP Vellotti)

Mark Lasry and Charlie Rose talk about Hillary Clinton. (Screenshot/JP Vellotti)

 

Bridgewater: NY Times Story Is “Distortion Of Reality”

Bridgewater Associates — the Westport-based largest hedge fund in the world — has responded vigorously to a New York Times story, which “06880” linked to yesterday. The firm says:

Although we continue to be reluctant to engage with the media, we again find ourselves in the position of being left with no choice but to respond to sensationalistic and inaccurate stories, both to make clear what is true and to do our part in fighting against the growing trend of media distortion.  To let such significant mischaracterizations of our business stand would be unfair to our hard-working employees and valued clients who understand the reality of our culture and values.

While we all would hope that we could count on the Times for accurate and well-documented reporting, sadly, its article “Sex, Fear, and Video Surveillance at the World’s Largest Hedge Fund” doesn’t meet that standard.  In this memo we will give you clear examples of the article’s distortions.  We cannot comment on the specific case raised in the article due to restrictions we face as a result of ongoing legal processes and our desire to maintain the privacies of the people involved for fear that they too will be tried in the media through sensationalistic innuendos.  Nonetheless, we can say that we are confident that our management handled the case consistently with the law and we look forward to its successful resolution through the legal process.

Bridgewater logoTo understand the background of this story, you should know that the New York Times reporters never made a serious attempt to understand how we operate. Instead they intentionally strung together a series of misleading “facts” in ways they felt would create the most sensationalistic story.  If you want to see an accurate portrayal of Bridgewater, we suggest that you read examinations of Bridgewater written by two independent organizational psychologists and a nationally-renowned management researcher.  (See An Everyone Culture by Robert Kegan; Learn or Die by Edward Hess; and Originals by Adam Grant.)

Rather than being the “‘cauldron of fear and intimidation’” the New York Times portrayed us as, Bridgewater is exactly the opposite.  Bridgewater is well known for giving employees the right to speak up, especially about problems, and to make sense of things for themselves. Everyone is encouraged to bring problems to the surface in whatever ways they deem to be most appropriate.  To be more specific, our employees typically report their business problems and ideas in real time through a public “issue log” and a company-wide survey that is administered quarterly.  More sensitive matters are reported through an anonymous “complaint line,” and all employees have access to an Employee Relations team charged with being a closed, confidential outlet outside of the management chain for handling issues of a personal nature.

The company’s response continues. For the full statement, click this link: Bridgewater Response.

Allegations Lift Veil Covering Bridgewater

Claims of sexual harassment, fear and intimidation are surfacing in Westport.

Specifically, they’re alleged to occur at Bridgewater Associates. The world’s largest hedge fund is headquartered at 2 sites — the Glendinning property on Weston Road and Nyala Farms, off I-95 exit 18 — but its reputation for secrecy is legendary.

The charges — reported today in the New York Times — were filed earlier this year with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights, by a 34-year-old employee. The newspaper interviewed 7 former employees and people who have worked with Bridgewater, lifting a lid on the $154 billion firm.

Bridgewater has also been the focus of a National Labor  Relations Board complaint, about confidentiality agreements that have led to interference and coercion.

The Times story includes information ranging from recordings of all meetings, to skinny-dipping and excessive drinking at an off-site retreat.

Click here for the full New York Times article.

The Bridgewater building on Weston Road.

The Bridgewater building on Weston Road.

Joe DeJesus Revolutionizes America’s Workforce

It’s a side of life Westporters seldom see, but contractors and laborers here know well: pick-up points in places like Norwalk, Bridgeport and Stamford, where builders and workers connect every morning.

Bosses are never sure what type of workers they’ll get. Workers are never sure if they’ll be paid what they’ve been promised. It’s a risky, inefficient dance.

A new app may revolutionize the entire process — all over the world. And it was born right here in Westport.

Joe DeJesus is a 1981 Staples High School graduate. A builder himself, he’d long been frustrated by the process of finding skilled, reliable carpenters, electricians and others to work on his projects.

Dayworks logoA couple of years ago he used Uber for the first time. He realized the on-demand idea could work for laborers too.

He pitched the idea to Andre Haroche, a friend who had brought Liberty Travel into the digital age. He signed on as co-founder.

For $1,000, coders in India created a prototype. Convinced they had something, DeJesus and Haroche plowed ahead.

Dayworks launched locally, in the Port Chester-Danbury-New Haven area.

The idea is simple. After downloading the app, workers list themselves for free. They note their specialties (plumbing, HVAC, masonry, painting, tile setting, wood flooring, etc.); the languages they speak; the minimum number of hours they’ll work: their rate. and how they want to be paid (cash only or check); whether they have a ride or need one, and if they have a license and/or insurance.

Workers can post photos of themselves too. Coming soon: video.

Bosses — both builders and individuals with home-improvement projects — can search for workers by skill. Clicking one button completes the hire.

Builders and laborers connect through Dayworks.

Builders and laborers connect through Dayworks.

A boss can also post an entire project, including conditions like start and end date, maximum hourly rate, and whether English is required. Workers can respond immediately.

Bosses rate workers. And workers rate bosses.

Dayworks makes money by charging bosses $3.99 a month, or $1 per hire. (The 1st 5 hires are free.)

It’s a win-win situation, DeJesus says. For one thing, it takes the uncertainty out of the pickup-site process, which is both time-consuming and uncertain.

For another, it offers a transparent way of offering — and seeking — pay. Rates are often standard at pick-up sites. With Dayworks, bosses can offer a bit more to clearly qualified workers. Workers — who sometimes miss out on jobs because they’re pressured by peers to not ask for less than the prevailing rate — can increase their chances of being hired by pricing themselves accordingly.

It’s also a boon to workers like electrician Andrei Petrov, who explains:

Since its launch, Dayworks has spread across the globe. Bosses and workers are connecting everywhere in the US, and as far away as Australia. (Locally — and personally — DeJesus has hired excellent people through his own site.)

Much of the growth has been by word of mouth, and YouTube videos (created by Westport’s own Bobby Hudson).

Flyers — in English and Spanish — are also handed out at job sites.

But Dayworks is not just for builders and tradesmen. Other categories include house cleaners, automotive (mechanics, detailers, etc.), boating, restaurants (dishwashers, barbacks, busboys) and catering, tech repair, even personal trainers.

Joe DeJesus got the idea for Dayworks from Uber. Soon — like the revolutionary car service — his labor finding-and-sharing app may be everywhere.

And maybe — like Uber — it will even be a verb.

(Dayworks is available free; click here for Apple and Android devices. Click here for the website.)

 

Life In The Westport Bubble

This weekend, my biggest worry is the cloudy forecast. It’s summertime. I love the beach. Will my cookout be canceled? If not, will I still be able to enjoy a lovely Compo sunset?

I do not worry about being shot at a barbecue grill.

Compo Beach: long a place of joy, peace and safety.

Compo Beach: long a place of joy, peace and safety.

I have an excellent relationship with the Westport police. I grew up with some officers. The chief is a great guy, and a good friend. I know our cops’ jobs are complex and sometimes dangerous. Of course, I do get the usual twinge of anxiety when I see a patrol car in the rear view mirror.

I do not worry about being shot by a policeman.

I own my own home, and a car. I have savings for retirement, and health insurance. I am on the low end of the Westport income scale, but that is the high end for virtually every other community in the country. I am not in the 1%, but — in a town filled with haves and have-mores — I have everything I could possibly need or want.

I do not worry about where my next meal comes from, whether the roof over my head will disappear, or if I am one doctor’s visit away from ruin.

Most Westporters feel safe and secure in our homes. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Most Westporters feel safe and secure in our homes. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

I am a minority — a gay man — but I have never been treated differently because of it. On the contrary, I am surrounded by straight men and women who affirm their support for same-sex marriage, for my right to hold any job I want, for my dignity and worth as a human being.

I do not worry about being murdered in a nightclub. And I certainly do not have to worry about issues like which bathroom I use.

Walking around town, and especially at the beach, I enjoy hearing so many different languages being spoken. I drive across the Post Road bridge on jUNe Day just to see so many different flags flying proudly. I am proud to be an American, and proud to be a global citizen of the world.

I do not worry that some people do not want me here. I do not worry that because of the way I look or dress or talk, some people will make assumptions about me. And although I worry about the consequences of a wall being built on our border, that worry is for all of us. I do not worry that I will be on the other side.

On jUNe Day, the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge brims with flags from around the world. (Photo/Jeff Simon)

On jUNe Day, the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge brims with flags from around the world. (Photo/Jeff Simon)

In the comfort of my home, I watch the news on my flat-screen TV. If the images get too depressing, I can change the channel. I can order up a movie on demand, go for a walk in beautiful Winslow Park next door, or do anything else I please. If the political rhetoric gets too heated, the voices too shrill or the idiocy and hypocrisy too dismal, I can read a book on one of my many devices. Or even a real one.

But — because I am an American, and a global citizen of the world — I do not change the channel. I do not watch a movie, go for a walk or read a book. Instead — fascinated, horrified, frightened, angry, sad — I stay tuned to the latest episode of the reality show that is “America.” Every day, the plot line gets crazier and crazier.

And — in the bubble that is Westport — I worry. I worry for me. I worry for you. And I worry for all the people outside our bubble.

Because, after all, they really are all of us too.

Bridgewater Buck$: You Be The Judge!

Bridgewater — the world’s largest hedge fund, which manages $150 billion in investments — just put its hand out for $22 million.

And the state of Connecticut ponied up.

The Westport-based firm — tucked away at 2 locations, the Glendinning property off Weston Road, and Nyala Farm on the Sherwood Island connector — has been granted $22 million in loans and guarantees from the State Bond Commission.

In return, Bridgewater promised to create 750 jobs by the end of 2021, while keeping 1,402 currently in the state.

Bridgewater's Glendinning headquarters.

Bridgewater’s Glendinning headquarters.

The hedge fund gets $5 million in training and energy assistance grants, and a $17 million low-interest loan. The loan will be forgiven if Bridgewater “keeps its promises for new and retained jobs in Connecticut,” NBC Connecticut says.

Bridgewater — founded and run by Ray Dalio of Greenwich, the richest man in the state — will spend $527 million to expand its facilities in Westport, Wilton and Norwalk.

So what does the “06880” community think of this news about our 06880 neighbor?

Click the poll below!

 

Robin Tauck Reports On Syrian Refugees

The Tauck family is known for many things. Their eponymous company — now in its 4th generation — pioneered high-end group travel, heli-skiing and small-boat river cruises. In Westport — where many family members live — they’ve been quite generous, from renovating National Hall to helping preserve Long Island Sound. A foundation is deeply involved in aiding Bridgeport.

Robin Tauck is a travel industry leader. Her interests range from eco-tourism to helping nations and regions use travel as an economic engine.

She’s nearing the end of a 50-day odyssey in Italy and Greece. With her proximity to Turkey, Syria and the Middle East, she got a first-hand look at the mass migration of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

Two of the many children in a Lesbos Island refugee camp.

Two of the many children in a Lesbos Island refugee camp.

On Lesbos Island, Robin — an outgoing woman who loves to learn — talked to as many people as she could: refugees, Save the Children workers, and the Lesbos mayor who, she says, “deserves a peace prize.”

Greece has already moved almost a million people from that tiny island just 6 miles off Turkey, through Athens, and on into Europe. Only 4,000 refugees remain.

Little cafes did their best to feed and warm the new arrivals. The island is lovely, Robin says, “but the people are even more beautiful. You cannot imagine how much they did.”

At the height of the smuggling operation, nearly 10,000 people a day arrived in crammed Zodiacs. (By contrast, Ellis Island — set up as an immigration center — handled 11,000 a day at its peak.) Save the Children — which moved its headquarters recently from Westport to Fairfield — now has 10 small offices in the area.

A hand-made sign thanks the many volunteers.

A hand-made sign thanks the many volunteers.

Hundreds of unaccompanied minor children were separated from parents. The kids are traumatized — and not allowed to leave the island yet.

Save the Children is focusing on them. Robin’s new friend Vasili Sofiadellis is teaching computer and coding skills. Youngsters learn English and Greek too.

“It’s not bad. But it’s not pretty,” Robin says.

A pregnant mother survived the trip to Greece. Robin Tauck holds her 7-month-old -- who weighs only as much as a normal 2-month-old.

A pregnant mother survived the trip to Greece. Robin Tauck holds her 7-month-old — who weighs only as much as a normal 2-month-old.

The island is in the midst of cleanup. Broken boats, and enormous piles of hundreds and thousands of life jackets — “each one a life story,” she notes — are being moved from the beaches.

Robin Tauck (right) surveys some of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned life jackets.

Robin Tauck (right) surveys some of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned life jackets.

Robin also reports that Westporter Barbara Innamorati brought toys from Westport to Italy. They were delivered to a refugee camp on Lesbos, housing 880 people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Robin explains that Lesbos is ready to move from the “R” word (refugees) to the “T” word (tourism). Hotels are vacant; charter aircraft have stopped arriving. Holland America docked one cruise line during the crisis.

Robin told the mayor the Tauck story — including how her family emigrated to the US through Ellis Island. He said, “maybe one day some of our 800,000 refugees that made it to Europe will start a new family and new story, like yours did.”

“God bless the Greeks,” Robin says. Lesbos, and the entire country — one of the world’s top 10 tourist destinations, with dozens of World Heritage Sites, beautiful island and warm hospitality — is “waiting for us to return.”

(Yesterday’s New York Times Travel section also covered the tourist scene on Lesbos, and the rest of Greece. Click here to read that story.)

Bart Shuldman: Town Leaders’ Hard Work Controls Costs

Wherever they were last week, Westporters appreciated hearing that our mill rate will actually fall in the coming fiscal year.

Bart Shuldman was in China. On his flight home, he reflected on the news:

Westport taxpayers received good news regarding the mill rate for fiscal year 2016-2017. The Board of Finance approved a 6.8% decrease from the previous year, based on the growth of the Grand List and the good work by Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and the Board of Finance at controlling costs for the coming year.

In addition, Westport taxpayers will also pay less property tax on their cars. We should all thank Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance for their diligent work, as Westport is not like any other town in Connecticut. Many, if not all surrounding towns are experiencing either small or large mill rate increases.

Westport's 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westport’s 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westporters also learned additional good news: The town will continue to pay down debt, and also continue to pay the Actuarial Required Contribution for the town employee pension plan. I do not think most people know how important this piece of the news is to all of us.

Some background: Many years ago the town implemented 2 major employee benefit programs, a defined pension plan and something called OPEB (Other Post Employee Benefits). In addition, past town leaders borrowed a lot of money and accumulated a large amount of debt.

In 2011, after a very deep recession, Westport’s debt stood at over $156 million. Our pension liability was over $186 million, and the OPEB liability was more than $84 million.

Making matters worse, for years before 2011 Westport was not funding the Actuarial Required Contribution necessary to meet the pension obligations promised to town employees. Then the stock market went through the 2009 recession, causing pension assets to decline. Westport taxpayers were on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is NOT a photo of Westport's pension fund.

This is NOT a photo of Westport’s pension fund.

Fast forward to today. With the good work of Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance, the town is in much better financial shape.  While the pension obligation has grown to over $270 million, the pension is 85% funded.

As noted above, Westport is now paying the total Actuarial Required Contribution and also making up for past underpayments. Meanwhile, the town’s debt is down to $115 million.

What might surprise many residents is that debt service, employee pension and OPEB obligations are an enormous percentage of the budget. Principal and interest cost on the town’s debt is over $14 million. Pensions cost the town over $16 million, and it appears OPEB costs over $10 million each year. Therefore, almost 20% of the town’s budget goes to decisions made many years ago, and does not fund current town needs and potential projects.

Westport residents should thank our current town leaders for doing what is needed to control costs and manage the town’s obligations.

Tri-Town Credit Union Opens Doors To (Nearly) All

It’s one of the least-known, lowest-key, most quietly effective economic engines in town.

Very efficiently, since 1955, the Tri-Town Federal Credit Union has provided teachers in Westport, Weston and Wilton with less expensive loans — and more generous interest on CDs and savings accounts — than they could get from banks.

When it began, teachers were considered poor risks for loans because of their “part-time” employment. Today there are 2,200 Tri-Town members — teachers, municipal employees and their families — with over $18 million in assets.

Tri-town credit union logoNow — after more than 60 years in town — the credit union is expanding. They invite members of outside associations and organizations to join. And they’re not just limited to Westport, Weston and Wilton.

Eligible groups include alumni associations; religious organizations; electric cooperatives; homeowner associations; labor unions; scouting groups; PTAs; Chamber of Commerce members; athletic booster clubs; fraternal organizations; community service groups; national or ethnic origin cultural groups, and professional occupational organizations. Petitioning groups must align with the credit union’s “long-term strategic interest” — a very broad category.

The Electric Car Club has already signed up. They fit the criteria for many reasons — including the credit union’s support of environmental initiatives.

A while ago,  Tri-Town installed 2 electric vehicle charging stations outside their headquarters in an old home on Jesup Green (next door to the Victorian house that once served as the superintendent of schools’ office).

EV charging stations outside Tri-Town Credit Union headquarters on Jesup Road.

EV charging stations outside Tri-Town Credit Union headquarters on Jesup Road.

The credit union also provides “green loans.” They offer 2% off their normal auto loan rates for any plug-in electric vehicle (including bikes and motorcycles), and 2% off normal personal loan rates for any home improvement project involving solar, thermal windows, insulation or energy-efficient appliances (up to $25,000).

“We’re in a historic site in Westport,” explains assistant manager John  Coniglio. “We want to help people save money, using smart conservation.”

Coniglio — a 1966 Staples High School graduate — knows his town well.

“We offer all the services of a large bank. But we pride ourselves on personal service — just like an ‘old-town’ bank.”

One with hometown roots, but not afraid to change with the times.

(For more information — including applying as an organization to the Tri-Town Federal Credit Union — email jconiglio@tritownteachers.org, or call 203-227-8511.)

Tri-Town Federal Credit Union headquarters on Jesup Road.

Tri-Town Federal Credit Union headquarters on Jesup Road.