It is difficult to look back and remember the year 2020. In so many ways it was a lost year – lost lifetime memories, lost opportunities and lost friends and loved ones.
Most of the first quarter of 2020 was what we now recall fondly as “normal”. We began the year debating topics that seemed important, like whether later school start times would be healthier for our older students, and whether we might improve our town’s competitiveness and real estate values by increasing the frequency of, or at least by reducing the travel time for, trains to Manhattan.
The last nine months of 2020 was dominated by the COVID virus. 2020 will always be the year we learned the meaning of strange new terms like “pandemic”, “quarantine” and “contact tracing”.
Managing Through a Pandemic
The pandemic in some ways also brought out the best in our town as we worked together as Town government officials, residents, businesses, educators, healthcare workers, and healthcare organizations to not only survive but to emerge stronger as a community.
As I wrote back in March, we have in New Canaan an incredibly talented team of emergency management professionals and volunteers (such as CERT), medical advisors, first responders (EMS, Police and Fire), education professionals (both public and private) and Town employees (Public Works, Human Services, Lapham Center, and more), as well as volunteers and community leaders, such as clergy.
We are supported by amazing organizations like Waveny LifeCare Network, Silver Hill Hospital, and other non-profits like New Canaan Community Foundation, Staying Put in New Canaan, New Canaan Chamber of Commerce and Grace Farms Foundation. All of these resources pulled together in the face of stress and uncertainty to support and protect our residents, our local businesses and our town to meet our community’s challenges head on, coming out even stronger.
I want to publicly recognize in particular a star who has been at the center of all of our pandemic response efforts: our Director of Health, Ms. Jennifer Eielson, who has worked tirelessly literally 7-days a week most weeks since last March. Jenn has led our efforts to provide COVID-19 community testing, to support our first responders in their safety measures, to support Dr. Luizzi and his staff and our school nurses in protecting our school children and keeping our schools operating, and to support our local businesses, private schools and clubs – and to support me in our regular communications to the community through weekly callouts and emails. We all owe Jenn and her Health Department team an enormous debt of gratitude.
When given the opportunity to take a deep breath and reflect on the year past, despite the drag that the pandemic placed on our plans, our momentum and our energies, 2020, for the Town of New Canaan, was a year in which we accomplished many good things beyond our response to the pandemic.
Budget, Taxes and Reduced Debt
From January through early April, the Town funding bodies – Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Town Council – debated and then adopted a fiscal year 2021 budget that increases the amount of money to be raised from real estate taxes by less than 1%. We adopted a tax mill rate for fiscal year 2021 that was slightly lower than the prior year’s, and we ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2020 with below-budget spending for the second year in a row.
Importantly, we are on a trajectory to reduce our long-term debt at calendar year end to $102 million from $127 million in 2011, despite having invested and developed a new Town Hall and expanded Saxe Middle School in the intervening years at a cost of about $18 million for each, or $36 million in aggregate.
Schools Succeed in the Face of Challenge
When the first wave of the pandemic hit in mid-March, our Schools remarkably were able to shift to remote learning on only two days’ notice.\
Through the leadership of our Board of Education and District Superintendent Dr. Bryan Luizzi and his very talented team of educators our Schools were able to return to mostly in-person learning, both hybrid and full time, in September and continue through the Winter break.
This was no small achievement, and we want to congratulate and thank Dr. Luizzi and all of the NCPS administrators, teachers and staff for their courage, commitment and determination to provide the best learning environment possible for our school children in spite of the pandemic challenges.
Capital Improvements and Sustainable Projects Move Forward
Although the pandemic slowed our momentum somewhat on capital improvements in town, many important projects moved forward.
Eversource Gas completed the third year of its planned 3-year, $30 million expansion project in New Canaan by completing installation of a large pipeline from New Canaan down Route 123 to Norwalk so that there is now a natural gas resiliency loop from Stamford, through Darien and New Canaan, and back into Norwalk. This will allow Eversource Gas to continue with gas installations and further expansion in New Canaan for a fourth year in 2021 and beyond.
The Eversource Gas expansion is allowing New Canaan to bring gas-powered, electricity-generating capability to the town’s Sewer Plant this winter and to both Saxe Middle School and New Canaan High School in 2021-22 for both budgetary cost savings and environmental sustainability.
And further on the sustainable projects front, with the completion of a new roof on East School last summer solar energy panels have been installed there and will soon be installed on Saxe and West School roofs as well.
As part of the town’s multi-year road re-pavement program, a number of roads were rebuilt where gas had been installed and a new access road was built from the High School into Waveny Park to relieve traffic circulation problems at the Farm Road schools.
Finally, the Canaan Parish redevelopment at Lakeview Avenue got underway to expand our supply of affordable housing units with the assistance of the Town’s Affordable Housing Fund paid for by fees from developers rather than tax dollars.
Beautification Efforts at Waveny Park
If you’ve enjoyed time in Waveny Park as many residents have during the pandemic, you will have noticed a number of major improvements. Thanks to the Town’s public-private partnership with the Waveny Park Conservancy (a 501c-3 founded in 2015), renovation of the Anderson Pond was completed as part of the Conservancy’s initial 5-year strategic plan, as well as renovation of the front courtyard of Waveny House and continued progress on the renewal of the Jeniam Meadow. We thank the Conservancy Board, led by Chair Caroline Garrity, for their efforts and their leadership.
Also at Waveny Park, work is underway on exterior improvements for ADA compliance purposes at Waveny House and the old, rusting Lapham water tank was removed by Aquarion Water Co., at my request.
Progress with Cell Service Improvement
The arrival of Tropical Storm Isaias in August, with Eversource power outages, cell tower outages and Optimum phone and Internet outages lasting up to eight days and more for many families, reminded us how important communications infrastructures are to New Canaan being a modern and competitive town.
Fortunately, we made progress in improving cell service with the approval in October by the CT Siting Council of a new cell tower on Soundview Lane in the Northeast part of town. Very soon we will announce a proposed new public safety and cell tower in the Northwest part of town near the Laurel Reservoir on upper Ponus Ridge Road. And we are also working on various ways to improve Internet services available to residents as well.
Looking to 2021
Finally, as we begin a new year, I want to again thank all of you, our residents and your children, for your support and your spirit in abiding by the measures that will keep us protected as a community until everyone can be vaccinated in 2021, including wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings that will further spread the coronavirus.
We are excited about accomplishing even more this coming year, including keeping our schools strong, our budget well managed, our assets well maintained and our town safe.
I wish everyone a safe, healthy and hopefully “more normal” 2021.