This week marks the one-year anniversary of my taking office as first selectman. Here is a brief report on our progress.
My campaign in 2017 focused on five major themes: improving cell phone service, increasing commuter parking, strengthening financial management, insuring transparency in government and maintaining excellence in our schools. I also highlighted the issues of strengthening our downtown business district, encouraging the building of senior housing and preserving open space.
Improving Cell Phone Service
In 2017, New Canaan was threatened with the prospect of having to replace the existing cell antennas on the Waveny water tank—which provide one-third of our cell service—with a new cell tower in Waveny Park. Fortunately, last December Aquarion acceded to my plea against the need to build a cell tower in the park and agreed to keep the carriers’ antennas on their water tank permanently.
Solving the problem of poor to non-existent cell service in 40 percent of town continues to be our toughest challenge, but we are making progress. We need 3 or 4 more macro-cell antenna sites in the North and West parts of town to achieve 21st Century cell service. We are currently working with our partner Homeland Towers on proposed tower sites in the Northeast and Northwest, which will be very unobtrusive towers like those at Silver Hill Hospital and the New Canaan Country Club.
Here’s a startling factoid: New Canaan has a land mass of 22.5 square miles, while the island of Manhattan is 22.8 square miles. New Canaan has 5 antenna locations from which cell signals are broadcast, while there are 14,000 cell antenna locations in Manhattan! It’s no wonder we have third world cell service in a substantial part of town.
As I stated during the campaign, this is not just a matter of inconvenience, it is a matter of public safety for our residents and our first responders. Just this past month we had an incident in town where a homeowner without power had to get in her car to get to an area where she could call 911 to report a fire in her home.
Increasing Commuter Parking
When I took office last November, there was a two-year wait to obtain a commuter parking permit at Talmadge Hill station and seven years at the Lumberyard commuter lot. After surveying our commuter parking usage, we took action in July to convert 38 of 96 daily fee spaces at Talmadge Hill to permit spaces for New Canaan residents only. In August, we invited a technology company from New Jersey, Boxcar, to work with the town to make 60 parking spaces at St. Aloysius R.C. Church available to commuters one block from the train station. We no longer have a wait list for New Canaan residents at Talmadge Hill station and we’ve increased commuter parking spaces available exclusively for New Canaan residents by 16 percent, at no cost to the town. In addition, the CT Department of Transportation, at my request, recently agreed to make State-owned land available at Talmadge Hill station to expand commuter parking by another 60 to 70 spaces at no cost to the town for the land. We continue to study parking lot usage to optimize parking availability in the most cost effective manner.
Strengthening Financial Management
I am very pleased to report that our CFO Sandra Dennies, our Controller Joanne Noone and our new Budget Director Lunda Asmani have brought a new level of accuracy and transparency to our Finance Department, as well as award-winning presentation of our town financial statements. Our outside auditors, our Audit Committee and our Board of Finance have all recognized the improvement to the town’s financial reporting. Through the efforts of our finance team, working with the Board of Finance, we have made the annual budget process completely transparent, as evidenced by the recent Saturday morning public meeting of all four boards (Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, Town Council and Board of Education) at which the Board of Finance 2019-20 budget model was explained in detail.
Insuring Transparency in Government
In February, I decided that the best way to insure transparency in our town government is to meet with the local media (now four reporters covering New Canaan) every two weeks in my office. I answer questions candidly and completely. There are no secrets in our handling of the town agenda. My door is always open and I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, questions and concerns.
Maintaining Excellence in our Schools
I recognize that education is New Canaan’s brand and drawing card for new residents. The Board of Finance 2019-20 budget model seeks to assure continued funding at a prudent and sustainable level so that New Canaan’s schools will continue to achieve excellence. At the same time, we will continue to seek opportunities for operational and financial collaboration between the town and the school district to keep our real estate taxes competitive.
Natural Gas Expansion Creates Savings Opportunities
In January 2017, I invited Eversource to come back to the table to bring natural gas into New Canaan for the first time in almost 70 years (as a high-pressure interstate gas pipeline has run through New Canaan since 1952). Phase 1 of a three-year, $25 million expansion of gas pipelines into New Canaan is nearly complete. This can be expected to produce millions of dollars in energy savings in future years for taxpayers from heating our schools and public buildings and for residents who convert to gas. We have experienced short-term pain with traffic delays and temporarily rough roads, but the long-term gains will be more than worth it.
We are also currently working on plans for a gas-powered, micro-grid power plant behind New Canaan High School—hopefully with State alternative energy seed funding—that will produce electricity for NCHS, Saxe and South schools as well as the YMCA and Waveny Care Center, creating substantial additional energy savings. And we are working on solar panel installations at five town buildings and four schools in the next couple of years, further reducing energy costs for taxpayers and making New Canaan an environmentally sustainable community.
Supporting our Downtown Business District
New Canaan is not immune from the “Amazon effect” and changing social trends that is making it difficult for local retail businesses to survive and thrive. While there is no silver bullet to solving these problems, we are in the process of creating a Tourism and Economic Development Committee to work on strengthening the local economy.
For three decades, New Canaan has wanted to encourage the building of independent housing for seniors that is “senior-friendly” (meaning one-story living that is sized to be more affordable for moderate income seniors as compared to existing multi-level townhouses), but no immediate progress has been made. There are currently prospects on the horizon for meeting this need and I am actively working to encourage the development of this type of housing.
Open Space and Historic Preservation
Fifty years ago the Town’s Conservation Commission fostered the creation of the New Canaan Land Trust to facilitate the preservation of open space to maintain the town’s rural character and restrain over development. The Land Trust now has almost 400 acres of permanently protected open space that it either owns or has conservation easements on, nearly all of it donated by conservation-minded residents. The town is currently partnering with the Land Trust and a private donor to preserve and protect one of the oldest houses in New Canaan, 1124 Valley Road, which adjoins the Land Trust’s 10.3 acre Browne Preserve and which was threatened this year with demolition by the First Taxing District of Norwalk.
Working Collaboratively with our Town Leaders and Town Employees
During the 2017 campaign, I pledged to work collaboratively with our many citizen volunteers who make up our various boards and commissions, including the Board of Finance, the Town Council and the Board of Education. I am honored to work with New Canaan’s elected and appointed volunteers that share their knowledge and skills for the benefit of our community. I appreciate their openness and creative approach to meeting the challenges facing New Canaan and finding workable solutions.
The biggest pleasure of all for me as First Selectman is working with our talented and dedicated Town employees who make New Canaan run, especially our very professional volunteer first responders and public safety officers. I couldn’t be more pleased with how our Town is served by these men and women.
Goals for 2019
My goals for the upcoming second year of my term include striving to work collaboratively with our new Democratic representatives in the state General Assembly to try to ensure that the new administration in Hartford does not put an unfair burden on New Canaan in addressing the state’s fiscal problems. I also plan to work with our Board of Finance and Town Council to contain our spending and keep our 2019-20 tax increase as close to flat as possible consistent with our contractually obligated wage increases for town employees and teachers.
My best wishes to all for a joyous holiday season,