Category Archives: Local politics

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

Schools Superintendent Outlines Budget Cut Consequences

Last week, the Board of Finance voted to cut the education budget by $1.7 million. Today, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer announced possible reductions, if that cut is sustained.

Other reductions may also be added to the list. Right now, it includes:

  • Implementing “pay for play” at Staples High School
  • Eliminating freshman sports at Staples
  • Eliminating individual music lessons in grades 4 – 8
  • Reducing club and after-school offerings at the middle and high schools
  • Reducing the Workshop Program
  • Eliminating bus monitors
  • Deferring yearly technology purchases
  • Eliminating all 4 grade level assistants at Staples (the previous proposal eliminated 2)
  • Eliminating library paraprofessionals
  • Moving to a “double 3 tiers” of elementary busing, causing a 3:45 pm dismissal at either Long Lots, Coleytown Elementary or Greens Farms.

Palmer noted that according to union contracts, salary and benefits require at least a 3+% budget increase each year.

“The structure of education funding in Connecticut is grounded in binding arbitration for our union contracts,” she said.

“It is impossible to hold costs constant for education when there are built-in systemic accelerators which we do not control.  A $1.7 million cut forces severe reductions, impacting the quality of our district.”

The Board of Finance meets on April 5 at Town Hall (8 p.m., Rooms 201/201A). At that time, they may consider restoration of funds cut at their previous meeting.

The Board of Ed will discuss these issues at its own meeting this Monday (March 27, 7:30 p.m., Staples cafeteria). The meeting will be televised on Channel 78.

Jim Marpe Runs For Re-Election On His Record

Jim Marpe grew up in Canton, Ohio. After earning a BA from Case Western and an MBA from Wharton, he embarked on a career with Accenture that took him to Chicago and Copenhagen.

Transferred to New York in 1989, Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen were attracted to Westport by the quality of education, amenities like Compo, and the beauty of Longshore. They also appreciated the town’s arts heritage. A performance at the Westport Country Playhouse sealed the deal.

They joined New Neighbors. The very first person they met was from the country they’d just left: Denmark.

That story illustrates everything Marpe loves about Westport. It’s also a reason why — as he completes his first term as first selectman — he looks forward to running for re-election.

First Selectman Jim Marpe

When he ran 4 years ago, Marpe — who had retired from Accenture as a senior partner — believed he could use his business skills, his experiences on the Board of Education (interim chair and vice chair) and Town Plan Implementation Committee, as well as his leadership roles with the Westport Weston Family YMCA, Homes With Hope, Westport Rotary Club and Greens Farms Congregational Church, to help his town.

“I love this place as much as anyone here,” he says.

He cites his accomplishments: improving town finances; keeping property taxes flat; upgrading Compo and Longshore; beautifying downtown; promoting Westport as an attractive place for business; updating tax policies for senior citizens, and improving the Senior Center; creating a Commission on People with Disabilities, ensuring the town remains inclusive for all residents (and their families).

He’s running again, he says, because there is still work to do. “Hartford has placed problems in our laps. We’ve made great strides in creating a budget to address the lack of any significant revenue coming from the state, and any new bills or taxes we can try to mitigate.”

First Selectman Jim Marpe and Westport Library director Bill Harmer, at work in the first selectman’s office.

Marpe adds, “Hartford’s problems are huge. They won’t get solved in one year. We’ll have to keep our own financial house in order for many years. We’ve been conservative in dealing with town finances. We have to work even harder at that, so Westport continues to be an attractive place to stay in, or move to — one of the most active and exciting communities in the country.”

For example, the first selectman says, a public hearing next month will examine rehabilitating the Compo bathhouses in a way that is “acceptable to all, at a cost we can afford.” Similarly, while the Longshore golf course rehabilitation has made it one of the top 8 public courses in Connecticut, the Inn and other parts of the property can also be improved.

Marpe says he is in “total agreement” with his potential challenger, fellow Republican Mike Rea, about the need for continuous improvement. “That’s what I’ve built my professional career on,” Marpe notes. “We can never rest on our laurels. We have to keep what Westporters hold dear, and make sure this is a town we’re all proud of.”

Personally, he is proud of his administration’s non-partisan approach to problem-solving. Marpe says he has “staffed committees and given assignments to the best qualified people, regardless of party. That’s how Westporters like to address issues.”

Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe, with their daughter Samantha.

Second selectman Avi Kaner will not run for re-election, due to increased demands of running his family business. But he’ll chair Marpe’s campaign, and will continue to work on special projects.

Marpe lauds Kaner’s work, and is “thrilled” that Board of Finance member Jennifer Tooker joins his ticket. “With her background, which also includes the Board of Education, she understands the financial challenges, and the important impact education has in Westport.”

Third selectman Helen Garten was Marpe’s Democratic opponent in 2013. “We’ve worked together as a team,” he says. “All three selectmen play to our strengths. That’s helped make our administration a success.”

He looks back on the past 4 years with satisfaction. Little moments stand out: thank-you notes sent after he attended local events; Memorial Day parades and ceremonies that honor individual citizens, the town and our country as a whole.

Nearly 30 years after moving here, Marpe, his wife and his daughter Samantha — a product of the Westport school system — appreciate more than ever all that Westport is, and does.

Right now for instance, he’s preparing for a panel on April 1 about Syrian refugees.

“Not many communities this size would have that discussion,” he notes. “But in Westport, we have debates like this. Some of them are heated. But when they’re over, we all go to the Black Duck together.”

Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe outside the Black Duck, during last year’s Slice of Saugatuck.

(Democratic State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has set up an exploratory committee to examine a run for first selectman. He declined an interview, citing his state legislature commitments on the budget.)

Mike Rea Explores A First Selectman Run

Growing up on Evergreen Avenue, Mike Rea attended almost-in-his-back yard Bedford Elementary School.

His alma mater now serves as Town Hall. And Rea is trying to figure out whether he wants to work there full time.

He’s done many things since graduating from Staples High School in 1970. Rea helped found Festival Italiano, was a Parks and Recreation Commission chair, headed the Bedford Middle School building project, spent 12 years on the RTM, and now serves as vice chair of the Board of Finance.

He’s formed a committee to explore a run for first selectman. If he enters the race, he’ll challenge incumbent and fellow Republican Jim Marpe.

“For years, people have asked me to run,” Rea says. “I owe it to myself to see if the interest is out there now.”

Mike Rea (left) after his first Board of Finance victory. On the right is current 2nd selectman Avi Kaner.

A Bronx native who came to Westport at age 4, Rea has long been active in town. Soon after his Staples graduation, he opened Mr. Sandwich — a popular lunchtime restaurant — on Bay Street.

He attended Norwalk Community College at night. He married Carla, spent a brief time in real estate, and for the past 34 years has worked for Gen Re. He’s currently vice president of corporate services and global real estate.

His first political activism came before he was a teenager — for the Democrats. “Thelma Ezzes and Ruth Soloway got me to sell tickets for a JFK memorial concert,” he recalls. “Thelma always said I slipped through Democratic fingers.”

He later joined the Young Republicans, and became state national committeeman. He chaired the Republican Town Committee, and was a 2-time John McCain delegate at national conventions.

Mike Rea at the 1978 Republican state convention. In the background is longtime political leader Ed Capasse.

When Rea’s sons Michael and Alex were young, an earthquake devastated Italy. Rea was part of a Westport group that raised $250,000 to help, then brought 21 youngsters and their mayor from a small town to Westport.

The Sons of Italy rose from that group. They sponsored the Italian Festival, a summertime Saugatuck staple for over 25 years.

Mike Rea (left) with the Sons of Italy group, at an early Festival Italiano.

When his boys played sports, Rea got involved in a project to build more athletic fields. First Selectman Doug Wood appointed him to the Parks and Recreation Commission. Wood’s successor Joe Arcudi named Rea chair.

Under his direction, Parks and Rec helped develop Wakeman Park, renovated Ned Dimes Marina and brought a skating rink to Longshore.

Gene Cederbaum — a Democratic Board of Education member — recruited Rea to head up the Bedford Middle School building project. Rea and his group — including “fantastic volunteers” like Russ Blair, Howard Lathrop and Joe Renzulli — “brought new construction techniques and accounting principles, and combined them with state and local educational specs and budgets,” to produce a handsome school on a former Nike missile base.

Rea is proud that another Democrat — Wally Meyer — called him “Mr. On Time and Under Budget.”

In his 6 terms on the RTM, Rea chaired the Finance and Environmental Committees, and served on the Ethics Committee. “I really enjoyed the give-and-take from ‘the citizens’ podium,'” he says.

Mike and Carla Rea (2nd and 3rd from right), with their children and granddaughter.

He left the RTM to run for Board of Finance. Rea was elected twice, in 2011 and 2015, when he was the top Republican vote-getter in town.

So why might he challenge a fellow party member for the top spot?

“Why not?” he replies. “I wouldn’t run against Jim. I’d be running for Westport, and myself.”

His exploratory committee will examine whether issues like the condition of the beach, and finance and planning, are areas he could address.

“I’m a business guy, a facilitator, a project manager,” Rea says. “That’s my wheelhouse. It’s not a question of bad management now. It’s a question of, could I do better? When you commit large sums of expenditures to education, parks facilities and public works, you have to make sure you’re doing it right.”

Rea calls Marpe “a very capable, nice, down-to-earth guy. I really like him. He’s not doing the job wrong. I just think with my years in public service, and my skill set that augments the first selectman’s job, I might do better.”

Rea also says he’s friendly with Jonathan Steinberg, the Democratic state representative who is exploring his own run for first selectman.

Rea concludes, “I like people. I love Westport. I think I’d be good for the town. This is just the first step on a journey.”

That journey started decades ago at Bedford Elementary School on Myrtle Avenue. It may wind its way back there, in November.

(Tomorrow: Jim Marpe talks about his campaign for re-election.)

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.

Photo Challenge #114

Last week’s challenge was perfect.

It was timely (it looked like an Oscar trophy). It was tough, with several wrong guesses.

But it was not impossible. Elaine Marino was the first — and only — “06880” reader to know that Lynn U. Miller’s image showed one of 2 trophies — there’s a similar one next to it — in the hallway on the lower level of Town Hall, a few feet from the Town Clerk’s office.

They were presented to “Citizens of Westport” by the East Haddam Civic Association, for Best Voter Turnout in the state in the 2000 election (87.54 percent), and the non-presidential year of 2006 (72.7%). Many of us have walked past them often — but never really “seen” them. Click here to see this pretty-cool-to-win trophy again.

This week’s photo challenge again comes from Lynn U. Miller:

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Again, it’s something many of us see often. But where do we see it? Click “Comments” below.

NOTE TO YOUNGER READERSThe photo shows something called a “pay phone.” Back in the previous century, you would put a dime (later a quarter) in the slot on the upper right. Then you would pick up the “handset” and “call” your parents to come pick you up. Or your friend to say you’d be late.

In fact, you could do anything with it you can do with a smartphone today. Except text, get driving directions, play games, download movies, deposit checks, find someone to hook up with…

 

 

Y Seeks Clarification Of “Membership Cap”

During the many long months years decades it took for the Y to move from downtown, I thought the result would be a traffic disaster.

I envisioned lines of cars backed up and down Wilton Road, all the way to the Post Road. I’ve seen bad traffic there; I could not imagine it wouldn’t get worse.

Well, the Y has been out there next to Exit 41 for more than 2 years. And — you could blow me over with a feather — the traffic is not only not worse. It may even be better.

Maybe the lights have been rejiggered. Maybe everyone hops onto the Merritt and gets off at Exit 42. Maybe everyone jogs there.

Whatever the case, the traffic apocalypse never happened.

And next Thursday (March 2, 7 p.m., Town Hall), the Planning & Zoning Commission may discuss a membership cap for the Y.

The (relatively) new Westport Weston Family YMCA.

The (relatively) new Westport Weston Family YMCA.

According to an email sent to members, in 2008 — when the Y sought approval to build — the P&Z established certain conditions. One was a “membership cap” of 8,000.

The Y says they’ll ask the P&Z to clarify that the 8,000 “pertains to individuals that are of driving age.”

That makes sense. The fire marshal should care how many people are in the building. The P&Z should concern itself with the number of cars.

The Y did not ask me to write this. They don’t know I’m doing it.

But as someone who spent years imagining gridlock — and hailed the cap when it was first announced — I might as well admit how wrong I was.

Deli Owner Tries To Solve Pickle

The state Department of Transportation calls the Post Road/Riverside Avenue/Wilton Road intersection one of the most dangerous in Connecticut.

Everyone in Westport agrees. But every day, Breno Donatti gets a first-hand view of exactly how horrible it is.

In just the few weeks since he took over Art’s Delicatessen, the owner of what is now Winfield Street Italian Deli watches pedestrians run for their lives as they cross the street.

He gets plenty of lunch and catering orders from the Wright Street building and the offices on Wilton Road. His employees are terrified to deliver, though. At least twice, they’ve nearly been hit by cars.

The Winfield Street Deli on Post Road West.

The Winfield Street Deli on Post Road West.

It cuts both ways. “People who work across the street don’t feel like risking their lives to get coffee here,” Breno says.

And customers parking in front of Winfield Deli are beeped at constantly, as they back into a space.

This morning, Breno emailed First Selectman Jim Marpe. He asked for a simple “Yield to Pedestrians” sign, or maybe a pedestrian button on the traffic light.

What happened next made him realize that — despite the Post Road hassles — he opened his store in a great town.

Within minutes, Kirsten Carr from the selectman’s office wrote back. She said that although the streets are state property, she would forward his concerns to the town’s traffic control officer.

And just a few minutes after that, 2 police officers — Ashley Del Vecchio and Al D’Amura — strolled in.

They told Breno that they’d already called state officials, to plead for more signs or a renovation of the intersection. And they assured him they’ll do everything in their power to help the state make the area safer for pedestrians.

“They were so courteous, gracious and responsive,” Breno says. “Wonderful people!”

Breno Donatti (right) and Matthew Mandell, executive director of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce.

Breno Donatti (right) and Matthew Mandell, executive director of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce.

The intersection won’t improve instantly. But plenty of people are working on it.

Including the concerned — and now pleased — owner of Winfield Deli.

Town Site Needs Help

If you had to use one word to describe the Town of Westport’s website, what would it be?

Mine is “utilitarian.”

For one thing, it’s a town site. It’s not supposed to be exciting.

For another, it was last redesigned in 2011. In technology terms, that was when fish first crawled out of the sea.

But the site is being upgraded soon. It will be coded for use on those newfangled smartphones and tablets, as well as desktops and laptops.

And the designers want us to help.

Users can offer feedback on how they use the current site — and what they’d like to see in the future — by answering a quick survey. The basic questions are kind of blah, but the opportunity to expand on your answers at length is a good one.

Click here for the survey. Your town government wants to hear from you!

(My 2 cents: Get rid of that tagline “New England in tradition; cosmopolitan in outlook.” Yikes!)

Everything you need to know about the Shellfish Commission is on our town website. But not one photo of a clam!

Everything you need to know about the Shellfish Commission is on our town website. But not one photo of a clam!

[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.