Out of the Woods / It's a matter of dollars and good sense
Published 6:15 am, Monday, May 9, 2011
We Westporters want everything, and, for the most part, the wealthiest segment of our community is willing to pay for it.
This is the conclusion I draw from the $179 million town budget for 2011-12, which starts July 1. It was approved by the Representative Town Meeting last week after brushing off repeated calls to control expenditures.
This represents an increase of about $4 million over the current budget or a 2 percent increase over this year's town budget. And it is certain to raise taxes at a time when, even in Westport, there are thousands of families -- including many seniors -- who have been hard-hit by the Great Recession and are scrambling to remain as residents.
A fellow Westporter who knows our town well succinctly summed up our weakening in solid values this way when I talked with him the other day: "In Westport, if you have a dent in your car, you trade it in for a new one. It's as simple as that." There is a lot of truth to the idea that we, as an upscale community, have lost track of what made us great in the first place.
Hard work. Sacrifice. The passion to preserve the past instead of scrapping it for anything new that is bigger, better, more expensive, and is easy to acquire. Let's face it, for a lot of Westporters the past is expendable. Tear it down. Get rid of it. Build a new one, whatever it is.
We are, to put it bluntly, turning into a money-driven crowd that thrives on materialism.
I recently asked another friend of mine how his son was doing since he had recently graduated from college. My friend replied in an instant: "He's fine. He's making six figures What more can you ask for?"
I'll tell you what more I could ask for: Is he happy? Does he gain a great deal of satisfaction from his work? Does he spend a lot of time with his family? Is he creative? What does he most enjoy doing other than making money? Does he spend time volunteering to make our town better in some small way? Does he value anything other than "things" you can buy?
I took a walk on Main Street last Friday and, as I passed so many empty stores, I wondered to myself: Where has all the intimacy gone? What happened to the "Mom and Pop" stores where you could address the owners by their first names and be certain they knew you as a customer or as a neighbor?
I know only too well why Main Street has turned into a Hollywood-style mall. Property owners have taken full advantage of the moneyed clientele who move here and, for decades now, have charged higher and higher rents -- thus driving out the small entrepreneurs and inviting the impersonal, national chain stores to set up shop here. It's more than a change of scenery.
We are in danger of losing what was the heart of Westport. Joanne Woodward, in her foreword to the book I authored about Westport, wrote in 2000: "The one common characteristic that Westporters from all walks of life share is love of community -- a special sense of place."
Indeed, while we continue to celebrate our history, we may be raining on it.
I am not sanguine about what a future historian will characterize our town in the last part of the 20th Century and at the beginning of the 21st. It may be too soon to judge ourselves in proper perspective, but certainly the trend leans towards more and more material gain and less and less preservation of what we like to call our sense of community.
Yes, I know that we are very good at maintaining a façade of keeping up our traditions thanks, in large part, to the dedicated, hard-working folks involved in the Westport Historical Society's continuous series of events. But, aside from this one vital organization, how -- really -- are we attempting to maintain the fundamental New England Yankee values?
All is not lost. I am encouraged when I see Allen Raymond, our venerable municipal historian, making the rounds in town, leading tours, giving interviews in the local media about what Westport still means to him. He is an inspiration to all of us. I benefited enormously from his wise counsel before I sat down to write our town's history. He and his late wife, Barbara, the unofficial archivist of the society, provided a road map for me to follow in researching my book.
I must admit that I have changed my view about the annual budget over the past 42 years since I arrived in Westport with my family. In those days, I was all for the education budget -- the larger the better. But, with the new perspective of a senior living on a fixed income, I see things differently today.
When I am asked what part of the town budget would I cut, my reply is: eliminate waste and overlapping functions, consolidate services wherever possible, and use leading-edge technology to save time and money. I know we are doing that, to some extent, but I honestly believe we can be smarter and more efficient if we really put our minds to it.
I am reminded of George H. W. Bush's pledge in 1988 that he was forced to break and has never stopped hearing about: "No new taxes." Those politically ambitious among us who are thinking of running for first selectman in the future, should keep this motto in mind. And future candidates should recruit the best minds available to make our local government less costly and more efficient by flattening its reporting structure to get rid of the unnecessary layers of paper-shuffling bureaucrats -- especially those in the school system.
That would certainly be a more practical, intelligent way to run our town.
Can we do it?
Yes, we can.