Category Archives: Economy

Free Tax Help Offered

No one likes paying taxes. And almost as bad is figuring them out.

Plowing through all those IRS forms and regulations can be particularly tough for folks without accountants or access to other help.

Fortunately — in conjunction with AARP and the IRS — Westport’s Department of Human Services provides a free, full-service tax assistance program. Special attention is paid to senior citizens, and low to moderate income households. (It is available to all filers, regardless of income or age.)

Tax preparation and electronic filing of federal and state taxes is offered from January 27 (early) through April 15 (really, really late) at 2 locations.

The Senior Center program runs Wednesdays (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) and Thursdays (1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.). Call 203-341-5099 for appointments.

The Town Hall program runs Mondays, from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Call 203-341-1050 for appointments.

Nationwide, more than 35,000 IRS-certified volunteers help out, at nearly 5,000 sites. Last year, 748 returns were filed in Westport.

Tax forms can be daunting for anyone.

If married, both spouses should be present at the appointment. Taxpayers must bring:

  • Copy of last year’s federal and state tax returns
  • Government-issued photo ID
  • Social Security or ITIN numbers for all taxpayers and dependents
  • Bank account/routing numbers (blank check preferred) if expecting a refun
  • SSA1099 if you were paid Social Security benefits
  • W-2s from employers
  • W-2G from gambling winnings
  • 1099G from unemployment compensation payments
  • 1099s: bank interest, stock dividends, retirement distributions, broker statements
  • Receipts for deductible expenses, including real estate and vehicle taxes paid
  • Verification of the original purchase price of sold assets (home, stocks, etc.)
  • Receipts/canceled checks if itemizing deductions (charitable contributions, etc.)
  • Form 1095-A if health insurance was from the Access Health Connecticut Marketplace.

For more information, call the Department of Human Services: 203-341-1050.

NOTE: The “tax assistance program” refers to helping figure out your taxes — not actually paying them. Damn!

[UPDATE] No More Meatballs. Shop Closes Sunday.

Well, that didn’t last long.

The Meatball Shop — the Westport outpost of the New York-based restaurant that opened on June 22 — will serve its last balls on Sunday.

A hostess who answered the phone tonight laid the blame on “expensive rent and not enough customers.” She said the staff was informed yesterday.

The Meatball Shop took over from The ‘Port. That restaurant lasted 13 months — twice as long as The Meatball Shop. Before that, the ground floor of National Hall was home to Vespa. Before that, it was Cafe Zanghi.

It’s a wonderful space — but huge. Parking is tight.

On the other hand, 2 nearby restaurants — OKO and Bartaco — are flourishing.

There is no word on what will replace The Meatball Shop.

If anything.

The Meatball Shop in National Hall, just over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.

After this story was posted, Adam Rosenbaum — The Meatball Shop CEO and partner — emailed this statement:

Yes, we will be closing our Westport location after dinner service this Sunday, January 12th.

We have really loved being a part of the community, and have been so lucky to have built meaningful relationships over the past 6 months. Breaking bread with neighbors is what we are all about, and we felt like Westport was the next spot for us. Unfortunately, although it was a tough decision, we have a lot on our plate for 2020.

We are currently focused on a large re-branding, to evolve and grow into our second decade. Highlighting our delicious, responsible and sustainably sourced menu…and also add a few more dishes that we know our loyal guests will be excited about! (https://www.themeatballshop.com/news-item/dear-ballers/ )

This means making some tough decisions to focus our efforts on the NYC market locations, with a few more exciting things to come this year!

We hope that the Westport community, and all of Fairfield County, will follow along on the journey, and we hope to revisit Connecticut soon.

Westport Means Business

Those are not just words. “Westport Means Business” is the name of an ongoing series of events bringing together local business owners — and those who hope to be — to share, learn from and support each other.

“Westport Means Business” is about connections, not competition.

Last year’s inaugural session included Julie Fountain and Dana Noorily, founders of The Granola Bar; Jamie Camche, longtime owner of JL Rocks jewelry store, and Kitt Shapiro, whose 2-year-old West is already an established downtown presence.

The next event is tomorrow (Thursday, January 9, 7 p.m., Westport Library Forum; networking begins at 6:30 p.m.).

Panelists include Bill Taibe, executive chef and owner of The Whelk, Kawa Ni and Jesup Hall; JoyRide’s CEO and co-owner Becky Cerroni and co-founder and chief brand officer Amy Hochhauser, and Maria Pooya, founder and CEO of Greenwich Medical Spa.

All are local residents. All own multiple-location businesses. All are very different. But their focus on community, generosity and success crosses all boundaries.

Last year’s topic — “Jumping Off” — explored the moment the women decided to start their own businesses. This year it’s “Lessons Learned”: sharing advice on what to do — and not do.

Jen Tooker — Westport’s 2nd selectman, whose portfolio includes speaking with local business owners — will once again moderate. As she did last year, she will encourage panelists to tell their stories.

And suggest what our town can do better, to help local businesses.

Tooker says that feedback she’s heard falls in 3 general areas. One is that we have a successful and vibrant local business community. But owners want ways to meet, learn from, challenge, support and cross-promote each other.

Another is that among our many talented residents, many men and women are looking to start second, third, even fourth careers. How can we capitalize on this talent pool, and connect them with others who have already started businesses?

A third area is that Connecticut has a reputation of being anti-business. How can we turn this narrative around, and highlight our diverse, vibrant business community?

“I’m inspired by every local business owner I meet,” Tooker says. “I can’t wait to continue celebrating our business community. We’re partnering with the Westport Library on this, and are working together with the herculean efforts of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Merchants Association. Just as we want Westport to be a great place to live and raise a family, it can also be a great place to start and grow a business.”

“Westport Means Business” plans 3 panels this year, and monthly podcasts.

Thursday’s event is free, and open to all. Pre-registration is not mandatory, but click here for a link so that organizers can get a sense of numbers.

Another Westport Closing: This Time It’s Chef’s Table

For nearly 70 decades, Christie’s Country Store served the Cross Highway/Bayberry Lane neighborhood well.

It went through a couple of changes after Christie Masiello and her nephew Don Masiello sold the store — including, very briefly, a dry cleaner. But when John and Renee Hooper bought it in 2009, they quickly brought back the comfy, community gathering place vibe.

They ran it that way for nearly a decade — adding, among other things, burritos, prepared foods, Frosty Bear ice cream and a Sunday morning farmers’ market.

The building is a non-conforming use, in a residential neighborhood. Zoned as a retail food establishment, it can operate as a takeout deli, with limited seating indoors.

The Hoopers wanted to offer brunch in the winter by the fire, and on the porch in the summer, plus a limited dinner menu. But state regulations prohibit expanding the septic system — a prerequisite for the changes — so last December, after 9 years, the couple closed Christie’s.

The classic front porch.

The good news: Chef’s Table took over. Rich Herzfeld — who opened his first store under that name in 1995, at what is now Aux Delices on Church Lane, before moving to Fairfield — added Cross Highway to his menu.

He opened April 1 of last year. Today came the stunning news: He’s closing January 15.

Chef’s Table was here less than 10 months.

It’s a tough location. There’s not a lot of traffic — at least, not a lot that stops for premium sandwiches, soups and a salad bar.

As much as the neighborhood loves it, they don’t always support it. Students from nearby Bedford Middle School and Staples High love it too, but they’re not high-margin customers.

Middle schoolers hang out in 2015– near a menorah, moose and reindeer.

Rich says, “Very simply, the location didn’t work out for us. We appreciate the folks who have supported us. We hope to see them at our Fairfield location. Many of our crew will come back to Fairfield with me.”

Tim Purcell owns both the store and the adjacent auto repair business. He is already negotiating with a new tenant to replace Chef’s Table.

It’s a food service. Not a dry cleaner.

Westport Gets Lit

Think your electric bill is high? Consider street lights.

The town of Westport pays $250,000 a year to keep those overhead lights on. It’s one of our largest Eversource charges.

Can we do anything about it?

We just did.

Over the past few months, the Public Works Department has been replacing all 1,273 street lights on state and town roads — most of them high-pressure sodium — with photometrically designed LED bulbs.

They focus on the road, without overspreading light into yards and windows. They last 20 years — double the old ones.

The new LED lights focus on the road. (Photo/Katherine Bruan

Thanks to 2 other types of savings, they’ll pay for themselves in just 5 years.

According to Public Works director Peter Ratkiewich, Eversource charges a lower rate for LED bulbs.

And — because street lights are un-metered — the utility estimates their annual cost. LEDs use much less electricity. So in addition to a lower rate, there will also be a lower usage calculation.

The department began installing the bulbs in mid-October. The project is nearly done.

Residential areas get bulbs with lower wattage than the Post Road. All include “smart” controls, meaning the brightness can be adjusted as necessary.

The new light bulb at Taylor Place.

The new lights can also be dimmed — or even shut off — after midnight, if Connecticut changes regulations to allow that.

The new bulbs are less than 3,000 lumens. There’s a slight change in hue from the old ones — but Ratkiewich calls it “hardly noticeable.”

Westporters have noticed some new lights though: Those that replaced burned out bulbs. Eversource had not been diligent about fixing them.

Now — having purchased the LED bulbs from the company — they’re the town’s responsibility.

Other municipalities throughout Connecticut are moving to LED bulbs too.

What a bright idea!

(Hat tip: Sherry Jagerson)

Persona Of The Week: Westport’s Human Services Department

With the holiday season in full swing, Westporters frantically shuttle between shopping and holiday parties.

Yet despite our perceived affluence, many families here struggle to buy gifts for their kids, or pay heating bills as the weather gets colder.

In this week’s “Persona” 06880 interview, Rob Simmelkjaer sits with Susan Stefenson and Annette D’Augelli of Westport’s Department of Human Services. They discuss how Westporters can lend a hand to neighbors in need this holiday season.

Post Road Real Estate: Tenants Needed!

In June of 2017, alert “06880” reader/Westport Museum of History and Culture house historian Bob Weingarten drove the entire Westport stretch of the Post Road. He counted the number of commercial buildings with either a “For Rent” or “For Sale” sign.

There were 50.

He shared the information on “06880.” It generated 57 comments.

Two years later he did it again. This time there were 65 commercial properties  looking for tenants — 15 more. Many — including 2 former banks, a gas station and several large retail storefronts — were still vacant from 2 years earlier.

The Mobil Self-Serve property next to Barnes & Noble remains vacant.

Once again, Bob’s story touched a nerve. Fifty readers commented.

The 3rd time — a couple of weeks ago — showed another increase. Now, 72 commercial buildings are available for rent or purchase.

Bob says that one bank building was added to the already empty two. Large retail storefronts still not occupied include the old Pier 1,  and XL Clothing building.

The Mobil gas station near Barnes & Noble, and the large garden center near Stop & Shop are still vacant.

Additionally, 2 new commercial buildings near the new Ignazio’s Pizza (just west of Sherwood Diner), with townhouses in the rear, are unoccupied.

Newly constructed — and not yet rented — space at the foot of Long Lots and the Post Road.

Bob is “alarmed” by the number of empty stores adjacent to Fresh Market.

A renovated large office building on Post Road West will start renting in January, for use as co-working and shared offices.

Empty space on Post Road West, just up the hill from Wright Street.

“I don’t understand how we can be told the economy is getting better and better, with the increasing number of available, empty commercial units,” Bob says.

And, he adds, his figures do not include the apartments that may be available across from Greens Farms Elementary School, or the new townhouses near the diner.

“Several empty available commercial spaces are now occupied — but they are relocations from other spaces on the Post Road, filling one spot but leaving another unoccupied,” he notes. These include Sam Slots Coins, Millie Rae’s and Earth Animal.

“What is going on in the Westport commercial economy?” he asks.

Tons of available space near Fresh Market. (Photos/Bob Weingarten)

[OPINION] Westporter Urges: Make Good Choices. Support Local Businesses.

Michael Smith is an alert “06880” reader, a longtime Westporter and a financial advisor. He writes:

We all have choices to make. We should understand the impact of every choice.

The other day I read in the New York Times about a hardware store closing in Manhattan. Not exactly unheard-of in the age of the internet and Amazon.

It was by a Columbia Law professor who wrote a book on the impacts on small businesses in America, from increasing corporate influence and rising rents in wealthy areas of the country. That’s something worth considering, as residents of Westport.

All of our local businesses have 2 things in common. One is that they contribute to the tax base; the other is that they have some “ripple effect.”

Indulge by Mersene on Railroad Place is a very cool, funky — and thriving — local business.

The contribution to the tax base is obvious, but the implications from declining contributions to our town budget from the state level are becoming increasingly important.

It’s harder to quantify when you click “buy now” on the web, along with impacts on the environment from single-use plastics and our collective carbon footprint.

The other “ripple effect” — which is much harder to see — is the choices individuals and small businesses make from the standpoint of investment in maintaining or opening new businesses, and where to own personal real estate.

Last April, I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the Coalition for Westport which attempted to discuss some of these issues and develop awareness. That session highlighted the complexity of the issues and difficulties of making change a plurality can agree on.

More awareness and involvement would be beneficial, because at the very least it helps us all understand that we can make a difference by recognizing the impact of our choices.

Westport residents would do well to consider the long-term impacts on our tax base and property values from short-term decisions, such as where to buy light bulbs, screws, household items and clothing. These purely economic considerations play a large role in the broader concept of community.

Where do yhou buy screws or lightbulbs?

I advocate for all of us to make a conscious commitment to consider what item or substitute could be purchased here in Westport, or very close by, to help sustain the economic component of our community.

I have no personal interest in writing this. I am a 25-plus-year resident of Westport, and a financial advisor who understands the rapid and far-reaching dynamics of our global economy in the 21st century.

As I told my children when they were young; “Life is about choices. Make good ones.”

“06880” Persona Interview: Board Of Finance Candidate Nancie Dupier

“06880” continues our series of “Persona” video interviews with candidates for local office. Rob Simmelkjaer produces these, as part of his new venture that helps users create casual, interesting conversational videos.

Today’s interview is with Democratic Board of Finance candidate Nancie Dupier. Click below:

To see all the Persona candidate interviews — and others — click here.

Make A Difference — And Help For the Holidays

It started out as “Make a Difference Day.” Now, the Westport event spans the entire month of October.

The goal is for volunteers to help local non-profits. They register their projects; willing hands are then matched with needs.

Projects are updated regularly. They include painting, maintenance, helping with compost piles, collecting used eyeglasses and children’s clothes — you name it. Click here for a list.

To register a project — or volunteer for one — click here.

It’s a month-long event — but Saturday, October 26 is special. Volunteers will gather at Christ & Holy Trinity Church at 9 a.m. They’ll assemble toiletry bags for homeless men, comfort bags for abused women, arts and craft kits for children in need, and Hug a Senior bags.

Click here for the full Make a Difference Day Month website. For more information, call Barbara Pearson-Rac: 203-226-1390.

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Meanwhile, it’s not even Halloween. But Westport’s Department of Human Services is already thinking about the holidays.

They see a side of town most Westporters never do. The Town Hall staff knows our neighbors are coping with layoffs, reduced work hours, even foreclosures.

For years, Human Services has facilitated a Holiday Giving Program. It’s as important today as it ever was.

Residents can donate grocery and gas gift cards of any amount, as well as gift cards to local stores.

Cash donations are always welcome. They allow for the purchase of last-minute gift cards for clients. Residents who wish to shop for a family’s actual gift requests can do so, at whatever level the donor feels comfortable.

Organizations — including non-profits, religious institutions and businesses — can donate too.

The more the “merrier,” for sure.

(To donate online, click here; select “Holiday Giving” in the the “Seasonal Program” dropdown prompt. Checks made payable to “DHS Family Programs” — with “Holiday” on the memo line — may be mailed to Human Services, c/o Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880, or dropped off there in Room 200. For more information, email familyprograms@westportct.gov, or call 203-341-1183. Families that need support during the holidays should call 203-341-1050.)