2020 ROTARY State of the Town Address
First Selectman Jim Marpe
January 26, 2020
As prepared for delivery
Once again, I am very happy to be with you today to report on the state of our town; a community that the New York Times, in a highly flattering article in September, referred to as “a historic town with a global mindset.” That comment is clearly reflected in the focus of today’s sponsors, the Rotary Clubs of Westport, which combine local and international service. Thank you to our two Rotary Clubs, their presidents Jonathan Baron and Karen Kleine, and to past-presidents Eileen Flug and Jeff Wieser who led the organization of today’s events.
If you need any indication of the real state of our town, just look around you. Our transformed library and emerging media center that opened last summer is an amazing example of what a creative public-private partnership can accomplish. We have only begun to scratch the surface of its potential as our local de-facto university and a world-renowned library of the future. Executive Director Bill Harmer, his staff and Board of Directors and the many very generous donors deserve a round of applause for what they have accomplished.
But if this is not enough evidence of the health and future commitment of Westport, walk about three blocks east of here to the Center for Senior Activities that opened its 50 percent expansion just one year ago, and has seen remarkable growth in its programming and utilization. It received the Connecticut Council of Municipalities Municipal Excellence Award and a financial donation for being the best project for communities our size in Connecticut for 2019.
While we are on the topic of accolades, I will note that Westport has just been recognized as having the highest life expectancy in Connecticut, according to estimates released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Our neighborhoods have average life expectancies ranging from 82 all the way to 89 years of age. I guess that is why Westport also has the best senior social scene in Connecticut. We were voted the number one small city in Connecticut and as having one of the top 10 farmers’ markets in the Northeast.
Even when we have had extraordinary challenges, we have come together as a community to face them honestly and seek a solution. Coleytown Middle School is on schedule and on budget to re-open late this summer.
Just as important, the CMS project has allowed us to improve our facilities maintenance processes and investments in all our Town buildings. We are working collaboratively with the Westport Public Schools to make sure that all our schools, which represent 90 percent of our public square footage, as well as other Town buildings, are safe, more sustainable and have a building envelope that minimizes water incursion. This shared facilities management approach will allow us to apply building management best practices to our over half a billion dollars in property assets and to address capital maintenance projects in the most cost-effective manner.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN 2019
Here are some other accomplishments that have made Westport a better place to live and work:
In the category of Recreation:
We have completed accessibility projects at Compo Beach including walkways and restrooms on South Beach and ramps at the Ned Dimes Marina. Westport also received donated floating wheelchairs for use at Compo.
New, environmentally friendly turf fields reflecting our Town’s artificial in-fill ordinance either have been installed, or will be installed this summer, replacing the original 14-year old artificial turf fields. In addition to football, field hockey and soccer, the new fields are also accommodating the rapidly expanding interest in boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. And the new Laddie Lawrence track is ready to use this spring.
Wakeman Town Farm has completed a number of physical improvement projects including an outdoor pizza oven and grilling facility to accommodate the families that consistently jam the property.
The Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum, while still a work in progress, has been officially opened with trails that have been cleared and that are available for public use.
Westport’s Arts Advisory Committee has named a town Poet Laureate, Diane Lowman. You may have seen her haikus on our social media pages. Here’s my favorite “Tucked in the Sound. Beside the Saugatuck tides. Connecticut gem.”
It’s also important to note that Sasco Brook has been de-listed from the State’s list of impaired waterways. This accomplishment by the Sasco Brook Pollution Abatement Committee comes after 25 years of identifying the sources of pollution and remediating the problems.
From a technology perspective,
Westport launched its new mobile friendly website. In the past our website users were only able to do their research on desktop devices, but since going live this past summer, we are seeing more and more users get answers to basic, as well as complex issues, on their mobile devices. The overall user experience is enhanced with content and images to be proud of.
The Police Department is using grants and Federal excess property programs to obtain innovative technology and equipment. The recent addition of two large generators, and the upcoming addition of two high-wheeled military cargo trucks will provide the town with an increased capability to respond in a crisis such as large-scale flooding, instead of waiting for State and the National Guard assistance.
The Railroad Parking Unit of our Police Department has successfully managed improvement projects at the Town railroad stations. With the improvement to the Franklin Street parking area, there are 17 new permit parking spaces in Saugatuck and approximately 46 new permit and daily parking spaces in Greens Farms. The waitlist for a Railroad parking permit is 18 months down from a high of 48 months five years ago, and we believe this will be accelerated even more in the coming months.
And it’s worth noting that Westport’s parking rates at $325 per year are the lowest on the Metro North Main Line.
Also related to public safety, we can report a 7 percent decline in fire department 911 calls, in large part due to the proactive efforts of our Firefighters and Fire Marshals in emphasizing fire prevention in the schools and in our local construction activities. Our annual dollar loss from fires is the lowest it has been since 2007.
What about Westport’s business climate?
We’re seeing ongoing investments to upgrade commercial properties Downtown and along Post Road East. Here is a rendering of the nearly completed building on Elm Street with four residential apartments on the second floor and first-floor retail space. Clearly our property owners know that businesses still see Westport as an attractive retail environment and want to lease space here. Here we are showing a few other recent businesses that opened up this year - Shearwater Coffee, Mystic Market and the relocated Earth Animal to name only a few.
The stretch of Post Road anchored by Trader Joe’s and CVS has become a fitness corridor where you can spin, row, strengthen your core and then get a massage, stretch, spa treatment and top it all off with a meal at Golds Deli or Little Kitchen.
At the same time, we are seeing an uptick in shared office spaces – Serendipity, Office Evolution and Beehive are recent examples, along with more medical office investment along Post Road and Riverside Avenue.
In 2019, the Town issued 20 new commercial certificates of occupancy. Look at the renewed Elm Street and the new Sigrid Shultz parking area. And when you visit downtown, don’t forget to see our Pop’t Art Gallery showcasing local artists.
Our Third Selectwoman Melissa Kane has been spearheading a very thorough process for creating improved Town wayfinding; working with key downtown professional and residential stakeholders, such as the Downtown Merchants Association, the Architectural Review Board, the Planning & Zoning Commission and local residents. This follows two recommendations from the Downtown Plan to make it easier for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic to get downtown, find parking and walk the area.
The Town and the Library are collaborating on innovative ways to raise awareness of our successful local business community and to promote economic vitality. We have launched the “Westport Means Business” series. The mission of “Westport Means Business” is to create an environment for local business owners or aspiring business owners to share with, learn from and provide support to each other. The series led by Second Selectwoman Jen Tooker includes live panel discussions and podcasts. We are thankful for the partnership of the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Merchants Association as well.
As we look ahead to the coming year, there are a number of initiatives that we are formulating and launching that are intended to address the issues that not only keep me awake at night, but also appear to be keeping you awake as well.
Let’s start with traffic. The town has met with traffic professionals and has undergone some major traffic studies regarding issues that span many roads and intersections, such as the Main to Train study. However, every neighborhood has its own specific traffic concerns. While we are aware of many of these issues, we want to understand more and discuss the challenges to addressing these neighborhood traffic concerns district by district.
In the next two months, working with the Police and Public Works Departments, I will be scheduling specific RTM District public meetings to try to identify practical, realistic solutions to local traffic problem. Because of our location and the presence of two major limited access highways and Route 1, we are a “pass-thru” community. We will never be able to eliminate the volumes of traffic that pass-through Westport at rush hour, but we can try to improve that flow as well as specific, local traffic concerns.
Affordable housing continues to be a challenge for Westport because of the limited amount of undeveloped space in our community. Sadly, many of our Town employees and our adult children cannot afford to live here. We were fortunate that last year we achieved a 4-year moratorium from new affordable housing created by developers under the 8-30g State Statute. This Statute allows developers to create multi-family housing developments with only 30 percent affordability, while ignoring virtually all local zoning regulations. We have a little over three years left on our moratorium. During that time, we have the opportunity to guide the development of affordable housing that respects our neighborhoods, while addressing the realities of our affordable housing obligations.
I am pleased to be working with the Planning & Zoning Commission, the Westport Housing Authority and our State legislators to approach the CT Department of Transportation for use of a portion of State-owned property within Westport to address those affordable housing needs.
For the past couple of years, our Parks and Recreation Commission has been focused on making Compo Beach the best it can be. While certainly maintaining attention to the beach, it will now turn its focus onto Longshore and addressing its needs that go beyond our top ten golf course. We have also begun a full rehabilitation of Riverside Park and are continuing the enhancements of Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum.
In the arena of sustainability, we continue with our commitment to be a NetZero community by 2050. The need to be sustainable has never been more apparent - whether it is abnormal winters or locally higher tides, there is a real impact with real human costs. Within the past year, we have seen several advances toward Net Zero because our community is so engaged and focused on sustainability:
We have restructured and re-branded the Green Task Force as “Sustainable Westport” with a greater focus on discreet, energy and sustainability projects. Sustainable Westport is a growing town-wide movement supported by my appointed Advisory Team with a variety of resources and ways to get involved.
Our RTM passed an ordinance requiring all food-service establishments to find alternatives to single-use plastics and transition to compostable and recyclable alternatives. Our Conservation Department is leading the education and enforcement of this initiative for a successful implementation.
We’re continuing to add new solar energy capacity, including additional net-metering contracts which support the remote renewable generation of electricity, while reducing the electricity bills for municipal buildings.
We’ve switched over our nearly 1,300 streetlights to LED bulbs. Not only will these more energy efficient bulbs save approximately $200,000 on our annual electric bills, but they will also save on labor costs. This is the first example of “smart city technology” in Westport because we can program and monitor the lights remotely.
Our Police Department has recently acquired a Tesla Model 3, one of the first in the country to be used as a police vehicle. While this zero emissions vehicle helps on the Net Zero by 2050 goal, we also expect the cost savings from fuel and maintenance compared to traditional police vehicles.
Building on the successful food waste reduction and composting program in several of our schools, Sustainable Westport will be announcing a new initiative - “The Zero Food Waste Challenge.” The cost to dispose of Westport’s solid waste, paid for by tax dollars, has increased over $500,000 in the past two years and 20 percent of that solid waste is food waste. The goal of the 2020 Food Waste Challenge is to decrease residential food waste by at least 25 percent using education about food management strategies and home composting. If you don’t want to compost at home, we will be having a pilot program for town drop off food waste at the Sherwood Island Transfer Station that will be free to residents starting in late April. Like the other initiatives I have mentioned, this one has the potential to have a positive impact on the environment and the town budget.
Speaking of budgets, fiscal stability is a key factor in keeping Westport an attractive community. Working with our Board of Finance, a major focus of this administration has been to keep our tax mill rate flat, which it has essentially been for five years. On March 4th, I will present the annual operating budget for FY 20-21 to the Board of Finance, so I will focus more on this topic at that time.
Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that our financial reserves are at or ahead of our conservative targets and our pension and post-employment benefit assets are very well-funded and have enjoyed the benefits of the stock market run-up. As a result of our ongoing management of financial and operational risks, our approach to debt and reserve policies and levels, and our focus on understanding and rationalizing our capital spending needs over the next ten years, we continue to be acknowledged for our excellent financial reporting and rated as Triple A by Moody’s.
And we have a number of information technology-related initiatives that will address security and operational effectiveness:
The construction of the consolidated public safety dispatch center combining the police, fire and EMS 911 dispatch of Westport and Fairfield has begun with a target conversion date of mid-summer.
Our land use departments - that is, Planning & Zoning, Building, Conservation, Public Works, Health District and Fire Departments - whose approvals are needed for any zoning or building related permits - will be automating their processes and going live to the public this spring. Members of the public will now be able to apply, inquire, and then follow up with staff online to know exactly where they are within the process.
We continue to focus on improving our cybersecurity capabilities to assure that we have data and information systems back up that will allow us to recover quickly from any potential disruption.
We are actively participating in the Western Connecticut Council of Government’s (WestCOG) 5-G network study team to be sure we understand the pluses and minuses of this emerging network technology and are prepared to safely and successfully manage any deployment in our community.
On a different note, the health and well-being of our youth and families is a priority for us. We have to recognize that our school age residents, particularly our teenagers, are under greater stress and pressure than any of us ever experienced. As a result, Second Selectwoman Jen Tooker, in conjunction with our Human Services Department and the Westport Public Schools have launched “Westport Together. This is an alliance that brings together the PTA and many of our Westport youth-serving non-profits to focus on strengthening the health and well-being of our youth within our families, schools and community and nurture positive youth development through Advocacy, Education and Enhanced Connections.
Finally, on another important matter, April 1, 2020 is the official United States Census day. It is of vital importance that we have an accurate count of Westport’s population. To that end, and in conjunction with the US Census Bureau, we are establishing a Complete Count Committee to join in reaching out to all community organizations to assure that everyone in Westport is counted, and understands the importance of a complete count.
In closing, I want to make a couple of observations. First of all, Westport’s success as a community would not be possible without the talented employees in all our departments and at all levels who play an enormous role in making Westport such a great place to live and work. And the same must be said of many of you who volunteer tirelessly to serve on countless boards, committees and commissions. Thank you all.
Secondly, I recognize that on any given day, there is something that we can find that could be better, or that we choose to complain about – and none of you are shy at bringing that to my attention, and I’m sure today will be no different in the Q&A.
Having said all that, within the tristate region, Westport remains an attractive and desirable location relative to many nearby communities and we must invest in maintaining that position. When the New York Times writer spent a day here, she couldn’t stop talking about the quality of Westport – it’s physical beauty; its commitment to history and to the arts; its education and recreational facilities and, yes, even its downtown shopping. She admitted she had enough for three articles. All this reinforces what I said last year, and what I’ll say again:
Westport is and will continue to be among the most attractive towns in the tristate area to raise a family, educate children, create and grow a business, and retire. We are a truly rare and wonderful combination of a small, charming New England town committed to celebrating our past and preserving our history, and also a cutting-edge community that fosters innovation, creativity and progress. I am confident about where we are as a Town and where we are going in the future because I know that all of us – our schools, families, elected and appointed officials, town employees, businesses, and every volunteer who contributes to the success of our town -- is fully engaged and committed to making Westport the best it can be.