Category Archives: Economy

Last Cuppa For Davids Tea

Downtown shoppers: You’ve got 2 weeks to get your specialty teas and accessories.

Davids Tea — or, as they oddly prefer, DAVIDs TEA — will close its Main Street store on April 29.

According to alert “06880” reader Pat Pontoriero, they’re doing well here. However — surprise! — they’re not renewing the lease because of high rent.

Davids plans to diversify around Connecticut. Right now, their only other location in the state is at West Hartford’s Westfarms Mall.

The Westport store — between Brooks Brothers women’s store and Jack Wills — was only the 3rd US outlet for the Canadian-based chain. The first 2 were on Bleecker Street in New York, and Polk Street in San Francisco.

Now there are a few dozen.

But — in 2 weeks — one fewer.

A sign announcing the closing. (Photo/Pat Pontoriero)

New Hartford Taxes Could Hit Westport Hard

Governor Malloy is a Fairfield County guy. But a new series of taxes and surcharges proposed by the former Stamford mayor — and under serious consideration by state officials — could hit suburban towns like Westport far more than less affluent communities, and large cities.

Among the revenue-producing proposals:

  • State taxes — in addition to property taxes levied by towns — on homes greater than 6,000 square feet, and/or with “more than two garage bays,” as well as on cars and trucks whose purchase price exceeds $29,999
  • “Excess water use” surcharges, implemented for users who surpass statewide averages (presumably for activities like lawn watering and filling swimming pools)
  • A fee, paid monthly by employers, for any “au pair, nanny, or other childcare-giver employed directly by parents or guardians within a family.”

The draft legislation “may impact some citizens more than others,” Malloy acknowledges.

But, he says, “ultimately all of us in Connecticut bear some responsibility for helping raise the revenue this state desperately needs.”

For a full list of many more proposed taxes and surcharges — most of which could disproportionately target Westporters — click here.

Westporters who own homes like these — with swimming pools and (presumably) garages with more than 2 bays — would be hit with special taxes, under a proposed plan.

Town Throws Cold Water On Firefighters’ Negotiations

As politicians, taxpayers and other stakeholders debate next year’s town budget, much of the focus is on education. That’s no surprise: It comprises the bulk of our spending; it involves kids and buildings, and everyone has their own school experiences to draw on, good or bad.

But we pay for many other services. Most are less visible than education. Lots of those negotiations take place outside the public eye.

One of those involves firefighters’ benefits and pensions. The other day, Nick Marsan laid out their case. It’s got some surprising twists — like a proposal to take away death benefits for families of firefighters killed in the line of duty. There are also decreases in healthcare for firefighters and their families after retirement.

Nick Marsan (Photo/Laura Weiss for Hearst Connecticut Media)

The firefighters’ pension contract — which is different from the work contract — expired last summer. Marsan — president of the 64-member Westport Uniformed Firefighters Local 1081 — and his team met with town officials for a few negotiating sessions.

After what Marsan calls “a short process,” the town declared an impasse. The contract is now in the hands of state-appointed arbitrators.

The union president is disappointed. “We walked into negotiations expecting the town was not going to change anything for existing personnel,” Marsan says. “We thought we’d be talking about future hires only.” Instead, the town also included current firefighters in their pension proposals.

Marsan says the town “pulled the rug out from people who have been here 25, 30 years. They now might have to make hasty decisions to protect benefits they’ve worked all their careers to achieve. They could lose 6% of what they’d get if they retire now, and possibly cost-of-living benefits.”

The proposal to take away family benefits for a firefighter killed in action is particularly disheartening.

“I’m speaking for my brothers and sisters. I think we’re a class act,” Marsan says.

“We go above and beyond, to provide a service to the town. We do it with a smile. We’ll never not be there for residents. But I think this is an ideological attack on us.”

Marsan notes, “I have a master’s degree. I could be in the private sector. People don’t join the fire service to get rich. We come, we work hard, we sacrifice 30 years of our lives for the municipality.

“We leave with aches and pains. We’re 68% more susceptible to cancer than the general population. All we ask is continued support for our retirement, and the benefits we were promised.”

He knows that “pensions” is a political minefield these days. But, Marsan says, there are a number of misconceptions about firefighters’ benefits. He says that pensions are based on base salary only — not overtime. His members pay 10% of their salaries into the pension fund. Westport’s fund, he says, is “one of the best in the state.”

He continues: “I’m a big boy. I’ve been through a lot worse than this — I’ve been in combat overseas. But this is tough to watch, especially for guys who have been here a lot longer than I have, and will do anything for the town.”

He appreciates the “brand” of Westport, and recites its “jewels”: “incredible beaches, a beautiful library, great arts, a fantastic education system.”

But, he says, “people who buy homes here also know the fire and police services are top-notch.”

Marsan concludes, “This is a living, breathing town. We’re not looking to break the bank. We choose this profession, and we know we’ll spend a lot of time away from our families.

“I don’t live in a vacuum. I understand the town has responsibilities to taxpayers. But we are a human resource. We should be valued.

“We just want to be taken care of. If I die in the line of duty, I want to make sure my wife and kid are taken care of.”

An arbitration decision could be made by mid-May.

Sono Baking To Close; Aux Delices Moves In

Two years ago, SoNo Baking Company took over the downtown coffee shop space vacated by Java.

The popular mini-chain — with branches in Norwalk and Darien — drew 150 to 200 people a day, 300 on weekends. Customers came to eat and meet — despite the noise and dust of the Bedford Square construction project, diagonally across Church Lane.

But now — the moment the retail/restaurant/residential complex is opening — SoNo Baking is closing. Owner John Barricelli expects to sell his final coffees, pastries and salads by Easter.

Plenty to choose from at SoNo Baking Company.

Moving in is Aux Delices. They’ll keep their other Westport store next to Carvel. This will be the 5th location, with 2 in Greenwich and 1 in Darien. Aux Delices offers imported and local foods, freshly baked desserts and full-service catering.

“The rent was astronomical,” laments SoNo owner John Barricelli. “We couldn’t pay what we owed on coffee and cake. We fell behind, and it got to be a huge burden. I’ve never walked away from a bill in my life.

“If we were going in now, we might have had a chance. But the numbers didn’t add up.

“To make it there we needed alcohol, and to be open 24/7. For some reason, at 2 p.m. downtown gets very quiet. We had plenty of people in the morning, and until 2. But with the average check of $10 to $15 — you do the math.”

Barricelli calls SoNo’s closing “very sad.”

But he’s not giving up on Westport. He’s looking for another site near Southport — close to their previous location, near A&J’s Farm Stand.

And speaking of farmers: SoNo Baking was an original vendor at the Westport Farmers’ Market.

They’ll still be there this summer.

Board Of Finance: “Education Budget Can Be Slowed Without Pain And Suffering”

Six of the 7 Board of Finance have written an open letter to Westporters. They say:

Westport has worked hard to prudently manage its finances and tax base. All branches of our town government, many elected officials and volunteers, have worked collaboratively, on behalf of all residents, to ensure we have a high quality of life at a cost all residents and businesses can afford.  Sadly, maintaining this balance will be more difficult in the future.

Today we are faced with grim economic news from the State of Connecticut. This is not a one-off problem and it will continue for years to come. Because of our state government’s inability to manage their budget and control spending, resulting in a projected deficit of over $1.5 billion next year alone, Westport finds itself in a difficult position. Instead of tackling a state government that has grown too large and too expensive for the residents, the state is largely trying to solve its budget problems by shifting costs to towns.

First, the state is decreasing or totally eliminating payments it has made to Westport for either education or other services, which equals $3 million to $4 million in 2018 alone. We assume this revenue from the state, which directly supplemented our operating budgets, is permanently gone.

Second, the state is discussing transferring ongoing costs from the state budget to the town budget, in the form of teacher pension costs. If it does not come in the form of teacher pension costs, we still believe transferred costs will come to us in another form.

The total impact in 2018 will be in the $8 million range (based on the proposals currently on the table). Rather than pass these costs directly on to Westport taxpayers with a big tax increase, approximately $800 per household, the Board of Finance asked our town to come together as a community to find ways to slow the growth of operational costs.

The Police, Fire Department, EMS, Public Works, Parks and Rec, Library and Town Hall staff did what they could, and reduced their initial operating budget submissions by 1.5%. We also asked the Board of Education to trim its submission by 1.5% or $1.7 million. This actually results in an increase of 1%, or $1 million over the prior year education budget.

Now it is time for the Board of Education to join with the Westport community to do its part, as they have before. This is not the time for pitting parents against the rest of the community. We must all do what we can to try to provide the best services to everyone in Westport at the most reasonable cost.

As we have learned in the past, it is indeed possible to slow the growth in the education budget without significant pain and suffering. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Recession crisis, the school system proposed an extremely responsive budget, and even gave back a sizable year-end surplus, with minimal impacts to our children.

We ask the Westport school administration, Board of Education, PTA, teachers and parents to come together collaboratively to try to discern what areas of the education budget can be trimmed without impacting our children’s futures.  We know that in order to continually be a leading school district that we must continue to innovate.  That means evolving and becoming better consumers at every level.

This is not a circumstance of Westport’s making. None of us can be satisfied with the decades of financial mismanagement in Hartford. The unfortunate reality is that successful communities such as Westport are being forced to shoulder the burden of Hartford’s failures.

Let’s take our passion regarding our schools to the state. All Westport citizens should be telling our representatives in Hartford — Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle, Jonathan Steinberg and Tony Hwang — that Westport will not stand for being the state piggy bank. This is where we should raise our voices and be heard.

Lee Caney
Sheri Gordon
Michael Rea
Brian Stern
Jennifer Tooker
Jim Westphal

Superintendent Reveals Cut List

With the state budget in tatters — and towns now on the hook for things like teacher pensions — superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer presented a $977,000 cut list to the Board of Education last night.

Board members listened to and considered each of the “mitigation strategies” offered. No action was taken.

The Board of Education determines the exact list of reductions. The next step after that is the Board of Finance.

The biggest suggested change ($170,000) comes from health insurance, as a result of reduced staff.

In addition, $100,000 comes from the cafeteria fund reimbursement for operating expenses, and $98,141 from deferring the hiring of the director of secondary education for one year. Other large cuts include a middle school literacy coach and curriculum resources ($66,000) each; not funding an “innovation fund” ($50,000).

Palmer has identified 39 items overall for deferral or elimination. They include personnel like a part-time psychologist, paraprofessionals, 2 Staples grade level assistants, and secretarial help in the district. Also listed: the Staples athletic budget, maintenance, and supply items like Long Lots bathroom renovation, Kings Highway art stools, and Staples library and computer chairs.

To view all the recommended changes to the proposed education budget, click here.

Staples Tuition Grants Seeks Stories

Staples Tuition Grants new logoSince 1943, Staples Tuition Grants has helped graduates pay for college. The low-key but vital organization has awarded millions of dollars, and impacted thousands of lives. Every recipient has a story.

Now — as organizers prepare for next year’s 75th anniversary — they want to hear as many of them as they can.

So they’re asking:

  • Where did you go to college?
  • What did you study?
  • How did the seed money help you?
  • Where has your journey taken you — professionally and personally?

STG hopes to raise awareness of its mission — and its great success — since that first $100 award, back when FDR was in the White House.

Email your stories (and photos!) to: info@staplestuitiongrants.org, or send them via snail mail: Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881-5159.

Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.

Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.

 

 

 

Westport’s Day Without Immigrants

An alert “06880” reader — and helpful mother — headed out to Chipotle today. A sick kid at home craved a burrito.

To her surprise, the fast-food chain was closed.

So she drove a couple of miles east, to Border Grille.

That locally owned place was also shut.

How weird, she thought: Two Mexican restaurants, neither serving lunch on a normal Thursday.

But when she got home and read the New York Times, she realized today was not a normal Thursday.

It was “A Day Without Immigrants.”

Border Grill was closed today.

Border Grill was closed today.

The national campaign encouraged foreign-born people nationwide — regardless of legal status — to not work or shop today. The goal is to show the importance of their labor and spending to the U.S. economy.

When she realized what was happening, the Westport burrito-seeker’s mood turned from annoyance to understanding.

“This is an important point to make,” she says. “Our town relies heavily on immigrants who work in our stores, restaurants, lawn services, home improvement projects, etc., etc., etc.”

The Westporter offered to take photos of the closed stores. She headed out again.

She reported back: Chipotle is now open. They said they were closed earlier because of “broiler problems.”

But Border Grill is still closed.

Did you notice any local businesses that were closed today? Do you support or oppose the “Day Without Immigrants” campaign? Click “Comments” to share.

Kami Evans Empowers Women

If you’re a Westport woman on Facebook, you know Kami Evans.

A local mom, she’s created “Kami’s Kloud.” Thousands of followers — okay, not all of them women — check in frequently. She connects businesses with non-profits and charities, helping build community. (She also creates many separate social media groups and pages, again connecting people with good causes.)

Kami — who could be called a “mom-cierge” — does not favor one event over another. But this one is definitely close to her heart.

Kami Evans

Kami Evans

On March 29, she presents a Women’s Empowerment Forum. Focusing on love and money, it features guest speaker Siggy Flicker (author of “Write Your Own Fairy Tale: The New Rules for Dating, Relationships and Finding Love on Your Own Terms”).

In addition, financial expert Jennifer Scheffer will share tips and tricks about managing finances and personal assets.

“More than ever, it’s important for women to come together to benefit humankind, their families and themselves,” Kami says. “You’ll leave with knowledge and inspiration, to balance your hearts and wallets.”

You’ll also aid a good cause. A portion of the proceeds go to Person-to-Person, a longtime, low-key local helping organization.

(Reservation deadline for the March 29 Women’s Empowerment Forum [10 am to noon, Delamar Hotel, Southport] is March 1. Click here for tickets.)

[OPINIONS] State Budget Woes Will Strike Westport Hard

Hartford often seems to be a lot more than 60 miles from Westport. This part of the state is New York-centric. We sometimes think our state capital is Albany.

But decisions made in Connecticut’s capital can have quite an impact on our lives here. With the state budget in free fall, that’s seldom been more true.

Alert “06880” writer Peter Flatow writes:

When people talk about the advantages of living in 06880, our schools and educational programs almost always top the list. Many people move to 06880 for the schools.  We did!

Among the many subjects Westport students study: robotics.

Among the many subjects Westport students study: robotics.

Having great schools requires adequate funding. In the past, both the state and federal (to a much less degree) governments have assisted in funding our school system, through grants and subsidies.

That appears to be changing — and not for the better. Reviewing the educational budget, Westport has over the last 5 years been doing more with less.

Now, with the state looking to eliminate over $1.5 million in grants to Westport, the situation will get tougher.

And while the federal government accounts for roughly 4% of Connecticut’s revenues for schools (8% nationally), who knows what pressures the new administration will put on the State and local school systems.

What does this mean for Westport? Is our biggest asset under attack? If so, what can or should we be doing now? Will local taxpayers just make up the difference?  Will programs be cut? If so, which ones? Will school athletics programs be eliminated? After school activities? Is there a silver lining? If towns don’t get state or federal funding, does that allow them to set their own education rules?

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is best to be proactive. We have an excellent Board of Education. It will be instructive to learn how they view these forces against our top town asset.

Peter Flatow worries about the state budget crisis impact on Westport's schools. Greens Farms Elementary is shown above.

Peter Flatow worries about the state budget crisis impact on Westport’s schools. Greens Farms Elementary is shown above.

Equally alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman worries about the cost in taxes — particularly to seniors. He writes:

Residents face the serious potential of higher property taxes, or cuts in service and funds to education, as Governor Malloy transfers some costs normally paid by the state down to Westport.

At the same time funds are cut, Governor Malloy is requiring Westport taxpayers to fund 1/3 of the teacher’s pension that was already paid by us, through state income tax dollars. State income taxes will most likely increase, as the governor tries to balance a $3 billion deficit over th next 2 years.

Shuldman’s figures show the loss of $465,334 in state education cost-sharing grants from the state; a loss of $646,975 to cover costs of educating severely disabled students, and a cost to Westport of $5,877,870 in 1/3 pension sharing for the fiscal year beginning July 1. He warns:

If you live elsewhere in Connecticut, a similar negative financial impact will happen to your town.