Tuesday, October 07, 2008

About Paul Newman, Town Finances, and Liquor Permits

Drop Cap Letter: Excerpts from First Selectman Gordon F. Joseloff’s remarks prepared for delivery before the Westport Rotary Club, Bertucci’s Restaurant, Westport, on Oct. 7, 2008:

While Paul Newman won worldwide fame, he truly was “Westport’s Own.” We shared with the world admiration of his acting exploits and his charitable efforts, especially his Hole in the World Gang Camps.

But it was here in his hometown, our hometown, that he also made a difference. He and his family were strong supporters and active participants in so many activities-the Westport Public Library, the Historical Society, and, of course, the Westport Country Playhouse. And there were many causes that they contributed to and helped that we’ll never know about.

As Westporters, we were so proud to have him as one of us. I’d like to have a penny for every time every Westporter for so many years has said, “I’m from Westport, Conn., the home of Paul Newman.”

Already I’ve had numerous unsolicited suggestions on how Westport should honor him. They range from naming a street, school, or park after him to implementing his long-time desire to add a small Go Kart race course for youngsters, perhaps as a Hole in the Wall gang fundraiser on annual basis behind the Playhouse.

He actually came to my office and asked for that. Someone has suggested lobbying for a U.S. postage stamp with his likeness and having it designed by a Westport artist.

Whatever we do, I strongly believe it must be done with the approval of his family and in keeping with the life he lived here. As Westporters, we tried to be so protective of him and his privacy. I think he appreciated that.

In our zeal to honor him, I don’t think we should suddenly disregard our respect for him and do something that would be inappropriate. I’ve been in touch with his family and will be discussing with them how Westport can best honor him.

Turning to town issues, in short Westport is in relatively good shape. There is no question that we and our residents have been impacted by the economic storm swirling around us. We all know friends and acquaintances who have been personally affected.

Business Week cited Westport as the seventh most impacted town in the nation because of the large number of our residents working in the finance industry.

As many of you know, I have been a volunteer EMT for 18 years. But now my most important patient is the town itself and I have spent-and will spend-much time monitoring how the patient is doing.

You who are involved in real estate know perhaps better than I what the situation is on the street. I am told while sales are down and prices have softened, Westport is holding up relatively well. That’s because we still remain one of the most attractive places to live in the United States.

Residents know they get big bang for their tax dollars. My job is to see that this continues.

I’ll throw out some vital signs of the patient for those interested in statistics. Our conveyance tax revenues in the first three months of this fiscal year---that is July 1 to Oct. 1 are down 20.2 percent. Building Department permit revenues are down 54.6 percent in the comparable period. Planning and Zoning Department revenues are down 47.3 percent.

While some of these may sound drastic, in most cases they were anticipated and factored in our budget projections for 2008-09.

In the first quarter of the fiscal year, we had five foreclosures-the same number as in the year ago period. We have 14 bank lis pendens filed in the period vs. eight last year. These are often the advance warning of a foreclosure action.

As a journalist, you know I’m interested in some of the human interest indicators. For the same three-month period, marriage license revenues are down 11 percent; fish and game license revenues are down 42 percent; but dog license revenues are up 14 percent. And, perhaps, to no one’s surprise, liquor permit revenues are up 38 percent.

The Public Works Department tells me Westporters threw out almost 5 percent less household trash in the period. But the amount of electronics received at our transfer station went from 1.5 tons in July, when we began the program, to 5.7 tons in August, a 280 percent jump. But maybe that’s because more people became aware of it.

While these statistics are helpful, they tell us what’s gone on in the past but only hint at our future.

In our 2008-09 budget we anticipated a slow down and I have told department heads I am looking for savings in every budget line. As we tighten our belt, there will be an unavoidable impact on services provided. We will try to minimize that impact, but I don’t have to tell you these are very difficult economic times.

We are using improved technology where we can. We have implemented a new financial management computer system and have finished installing the voice over Internet protocol fiber optic telephone system in the schools and are working to complete the installation in town buildings. This will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars in the coming years over current costs.

We have moved to conserve energy where we can. Everything from use of reduced energy light bulbs, hybrid cars, and a no idling policy for town vehicles where feasible. Our Green Energy Task Force is hard at work trying to get Westporters to conserve energy, including signing up for clean energy.

Despite the difficult economic times, we have established a special traffic enforcement unit in the police department. It has resulted in increased tickets for speeders, those not using hand-free cell phones, and those going through stop signs.

Our fire department has been able to move ahead with its program to improve your safety and firefighters’ safety by adding firefighters to our engine companies. This increased cost has been offset by reduced overtime and better management of our resources.

In fact, as we closed out the books for 2007-08, the town’s reserves received an almost $2 million turn back from the municipal and education budgets.

One of my most important efforts involves creating more affordable housing in Westport, especially for our seniors. As many of you know, seniors make up an increasing segment of our population and we must do everything we can to keep them in town.

At the same time, we need to continue to have diversity in Westport by providing affordable housing for our workforce-teachers, firefighters, police and our young people. While plans to double the size of the Hales Court Westport Housing Authority are moving ahead, it’s not enough.

We have a waiting list of 300 people at the Housing Authority and a similar number of seniors and municipal employees-town and Board of Education-have expressed interest in our housing plans for Baron’s South.

Already there are those questioning the need for this and calling it “over development.” If you see the need and support this effort, you need to let your elected officials know, especially as we get set for local elections next year.

Such housing will give Westporters priority. It will enable your aging parents to be able to move closer to you and your grandchildren. It will allow our young people to return to Westport as they get their first jobs.

When I was growing up in Westport, it was a diverse community. Writers and artists were able to live here on modest incomes. We need to do everything we can to see that such diversity continues.