To recap: An “06880” reader wrote about her frustration that the Merritt Country Store’s front windows were plastered with ads for vaping products. She suggested a boycott of the convenience store, next to Coffee An’.
Juul ads at the Merritt Country Store.
Many people responded with outrage about vaping. Some were upset about the boycott call, saying it was one more example of how hard it is to do business here.
Bart Shuldman defended the store. He suggested that instead of demanding a boycott, the original writer should have gone in and told the owners of her concerns.
Dan Katz wondered why Bart didn’t do that himself.
So he did.
Here’s Bart’s report:
I stopped by the store today. The signs were already removed. When I spoke to my friend at the shop, he said:
“We are here to serve the community. We want people to like us. We were so upset when we heard it. We are a mom and pop trying to make it despite the high rent. Just talk to us.”
Action was indeed swift. Here’s the store today:
Now, if you have a problem with lottery tickets: Hold your fire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With snow and high winds predicted for tomorrow, some Westporters may lose power.
Alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman wants his neighbors — particularly those with new generators, or those who have not thought about their old ones in a while — to be prepared. He passes along these tips:
If you are lucky enough to have a generator, you need to know it needs oil. Depending on the size and type, when running it will need oil once a day, every other day, or every 3 days. Your generator will stop running if and when the oil pressure drops.
Here is how to see how much oil you have — and if necessary, how to change it:
Open the panels that surround the generator. Find the one where the electrical panel is. If the unit is on, turn off the unit first — not the breaker. Your switch should have a middle “off” position. Once the unit is off, wait 30 seconds — then turn the breaker off.
Once everything is off, look for the dipstick. Pull it out, wipe it clean, replace it and see if the oil shows up on the stick. There will be minimum and maximum marks. If below the minimum, add oil.
Find the oil turn cover on top of the unit. Open it up and add the oil (you may need a funnel). Add half a can, then use your dipstick and look again. Add until the oil is close to maximum level.
Once finished, replace the oil cover and put back the oil dipstick.
When starting your generator again, turn on the unit first — not the breaker. Wait a few seconds, then turn the breaker on. Then replace all covers. Your generator will work for at least another day.
Alert “06880” reader and frequent commenter Bart Shuldman writes:
I watched the September 2 video of the Board of Finance meeting, and was surprised to learn Westport just finished the fiscal year with a $4 million surplus — even though 2 months ago the decision was made to raise taxes.
From what I listened to, the revenue in Westport came in a bit higher but costs were much lower. One cost center, Public Works came in over $600,000 lower in costs which had to be known, yet the finance director in Westport did not project that (and other lower costs) just 2 months back.
When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.
How could the finance director not know this while a discussion as going on about increasing taxes? If the Board of Finance knew that we would end the year with a big surplus (over 2% of the budget), would we have avoided a tax increase? I am told: yes.
Not only did the costs come in much lower, the Board of Education returned $180,000 back to the town. I guess the constant request of needing more money for our school system was not needed last year.
These tax increases hurt our senior citizens the most. With low interest rates and low returns in the stock market, anyone who is retired has a difficult time if their costs increase. Now these residents face increased taxes in Westport when it should have been avoided.
The good news is our first selectman and Board of Finance have done a great job controlling costs. They clearly deserve our thanks. But now it’s time to get a functioning finance department in Westport that can forecast better, especially with just 2 months to go. Not being able to provide the necessary information to our Board of Finance regarding our financial results as we get close to the end of the fiscal year is very concerning, and resulted in an unnecessary tax increase.
Town finance director Gary Conrad replies:
In May we projected a conservative $2.5 million surplus. Because of this, the Board of Finance set the mill rate using $4.1 million dollars of fund balance to reduce the tax increase. So in effect we used the whole $4.0 million surplus to reduce taxes while the mill rate increase was only .84%. Department of Public Works savings were achieved due to lower solid waste costs and the deferral of building maintenance, tree maintenance and parks and recreation property maintenance.
2nd Selectman Avi Kaner — a former chair and 8-year member of the Board of Finance — also responds:
Westport’s annual budget stands at over $200 million. Our town department heads and the Board of Finance work diligently to control our expenses and report to the public on a monthly basis.
Because the Board of Finance did not meet in August, the resulting surplus was discussed in September. The amount of the surplus caught the members by surprise given the values shown in July.
The good news is that any budget surplus enters into the town’s general reserves and is available to defray any tax increase. The Board of Finance has been pegging the town’s reserves at a conservative 11%, aggressively paying down long term debt, fully funding our pension obligations, and maintaining our AAA rating.
When the Board of Finance sets the mil rate again in about 8 months, the surplus will be used to lower the change in mil rate once again for that fiscal year. We will work with the finance department to more accurately forecast revenues and expenses on a monthly basis.
When Connecticut legislators passed a controversial budget bill earlier this month — which Governor Malloy has not yet signed, and is still being tinkered with — a number of business leaders howled. GE threatened to move.
Two Westport businessmen decided to do more than just complain. Bart Shuldman (a frequent “06880” commenter) and Steve Obsitnik (a former congressional candidate) organized a “business roundtable.” Set for this Friday (June 26, 9 a.m., Norwalk Inn), the aim is to discuss ways to improve the state’s business climate.
Governor Malloy was invited, but declined. So Shuldman and Obsitnik got another governor to speak: Florida’s Rick Scott.
“We need to know what competitive states like his are doing — so we can do better,” Shuldman says. “In business it’s called benchmarking — looking at the market and seeing best practices.”
The roundtable is an invitation-only event. But I’m sure Shuldman will provide “06880” with details.
With the storm of the decadecentury millennium bearing down on us — the latest forecast is for up to 75 inches of snow, and winds nearing 12,000 miles an hour* — alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman passes along these tips:
If you are lucky enough to have a generator, you need to know that depending on the size and type, it will need oil once a day, every other day, or every 3 days. Your generator will stop running if the oil pressure drops.
Here is how to see how much oil you have — and, if necessary, how to change it:
Open the panels surrounding the generator. Find the electrical panel. If the unit is on, turn off the unit first — NOT THE BREAKER. Your switch should have a middle position that is “off.” Do not turn off the breaker just yet. Once the unit is off, wait 30 seconds — then turn the breaker off.
Once everything is off, look for the dipstick. Pull it out, wipe it clean, replace it and see if oil shows up on the stick. There will be minimum and maximum marks. If below the minimum, add oil.
Find the oil turn cover on top of the unit. Open it up and add the oil (you may need a funnel). Add about half a can, then use your dipstick and look again. Add until the oil is close to maximum level.
Once finished, replace the oil cover and put the oil dipstick back.
When starting the generator again, turn on the unit first — NOT THE BREAKER. Wait a few seconds, then turn the breaker on. Then replace all covers. You’ve kept your generator working for at least another day.
Last week’s horrific events in Paris touched every Westporter. We wondered how such things can happen. We talked about religion, freedom and humanity. We thought about France, and looked in new ways at America.
The news hit Westport’s Bart Shuldman and his wife wife Sue especially hard. In 1996 they were eyewitnesses to an IRA bomb that demolished a London bus.
Bart helped save the driver’s life. Nearly 20 years later, he remains haunted by the event. He calls such violence “truly devastating. It is worse than any picture could portray.”
That February day, Bart and Sue had just arrived in London. They boarded a taxi to their hotel. At a red light, a bus traveling from a different direction turned, then exploded right in front of them.
The taxi driver screamed. Bart and Sue watched in horror as the bus continued to travel, while opening up like a can.
The taxi driver asked what they should do. Bart said, let’s go help.
The aftermath of the 1996 IRA bus bombing in London.
Not knowing if there were more bombs, they followed the bus until it stopped. The taxi stopped. Bart and the driver jumped out.
The driver grabbed a fire extinguisher, and went to one side of the bus. Bart went to the other side.
He heard noises. It was the bus driver, who had been hit from behind by the blast. The taxi driver, meanwhile, said he’d discovered a body in 2 parts, on fire. It was the bomber.
Bart got the driver out from the rubble, and carried him to the sidewalk. His head was bleeding badly. Bart knew the victim could not hear him, so he had the man focus on Bart’s mouth. Bart wanted to keep talking, so the man would not pass out and die in his arms.
It took a while for an ambulance to arrive. Police and medics waited a long time, as people screamed there were more bombs.
Finally, Bart was escorted back to the taxi. Sue was there, scared. Bart at been gone nearly an hour.
The bus driver survived. But he never worked again.
“These acts are more violent than any TV news report can show,” Bart says. “The destruction is horrible. The impact to a body is something you cannot imagine.”
Nearly a decade later, he is not sure why he jumped in to help. Perhaps — just as the entire world is trying to make sense of the news from France — it takes a horrible tragedy for each of us, individually, to find out something about ourselves.
Alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman has followed the Baron’s South senior housing issue closely. He writes:
Dear Friends and Neighbors in Westport:
I want to make you aware of a very important issue regarding the proposed new senior living facility in Westport that needs your immediate attention.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is debating a new text amendment that must get passed. If it does not, there is little chance the facility gets built. If somehow it does get built, there is a very real possibility that no Westport senior citizens will have the opportunity to live in the facility. The current text amendment leaves almost every senior citizen in town ineligible to live in the facility, as it requires 60% affordable housing. The asset test will cause most, if not all, Westport residents to be ineligible.
Many in town know I argued this point a few years back. Now it is here, and Westport senior citizens will lose. Westport residents will have too much money, or should I say assets, to be eligible. The units will go to people who have not lived in Westport, and Westport will have wasted Baron’s South.
Proposed housing at Baron’s South.
This is not a judgment. It is the truth. Even 1st Selectman Jim Marpe wrote about this in Friday’s Westport News. If the text amendment is not changed it truly “screws” Westport. We give away valuable land with no benefit to Westport. Very few Westport senior citizens will live in this facility, which will be built as a Class B type building. This is not anything we would be proud to have in Westport.
To add insult to injury, there is no tax revenue for Westport. It is a disaster.
The new text amendment that needs to be passed by P&Z addresses these issues. If the new text amendment gets passed, the town will have the opportunity to get a quality senior living center that will house Westport residents. It will be a Class A building and add to our town.
Since the developer will make money, once completed the facility is projected to be the 3rd largest taxpayer in Westport. Our schools will benefit. Our residents will benefit. But, more importantly our senior citizens will benefit. It is a win-win solution.
The current circumstances have created a terrible situation for town-owned land. Every selectman is in favor of approving the new text amendment — so should the P&Z. Every resident needs to support this. If not addressed now, Westport could give away Baron’s South and get nothing for it.
The entrance to the Baron’s South property.
Many residents and town leaders have worked hard on this project. We must thank them for their efforts. The mistake that P & Z needs to correct is the amount of affordable housing. It is a mistake I and others tried to highlight a few years back.
The existing text amendment that was passed locked the town into an asset test that will now truly eliminate the people they wanted to help: Westport senior citizens. Those who disagreed with me back then, now understand the issue. Westport has an opportunity to change the situation and make this facility a real benefit to the town and our senior citizens. Our selectmen took the time to analyze the project, and they all understand what is needed. Westport’s board of selectmen unanimously voted on this subject.
Westport needs the text amendment changed. I hope you will help. Westport could face the loss of Baron’s South forever for the correct intent, but the wrong reasons. However, Westport now has the opportunity to build a Class A facility that will allow Westport senior citizens a place to retire, while also giving something to Westport.
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