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Westbrook First Selectman Noel Bishop has a message for voters: Experience counts. Bishop, a Republican who is facing a challenge from Democrat Hiram Fuchs in the November elections, has served as first selectman for the past 12 years and fellow Republican John Hall III as selectman for 10.
“This gives us a perspective and a knowledge about how budgets are built and what we want to do,” he said. The town can’t “afford to have on-the-job training. These positions require a very thorough working knowledge of town governments. The budget process, how the state funding is working, how our volunteers work.”
It’s also crucial for a town leader to be “regionally connected,” said Bishop, who serves on the executive committee of the River Valley Council of Governments (River COG).
Bishop started as first selectman in summer 2007, when he was appointed to fill out the remainder of former first selectman John Raffa’s term. Prior to his appointment, Bishop worked as executive director of a state-wide dental association and in various posts in higher education administration.
Bishop said that, having knocked on residents’ doors every weekend since July, Westbrook Republicans hear a recurring concern: People want low taxes and no cuts to services, he said. Those are high expectations, and Bishop feels he fulfills them.
“Our municipal house is in order,” he said. “We’ve had only very modest increases in budgets in the last 10 years. Every referendum has been passed on the first vote...And this past year, only eight people voted against our budget,” which Bishop attributes to residents’ understanding of the process, thanks to communication from Town Hall.
“We send out the Citizens Guide to every home,” he said. “So when they come to a meeting to have a discussion, when they have hearings, they know because they’ve been informed by the information we’ve sent out.”
The town has moved from a budget referendum to a town meeting in recent years.
Bishop is proud that 27 percent of the town’s budget goes to staff salaries, not including benefits, whereas the average is “more like 37 percent.”
“We’ve kept our staff very lean,” he said. “We keep them very productive. And every time there is a vacancy—I don’t care if it’s full- or part-time—we look at that.”
One increase in staffing that Bishop did push for was IT coordinator. After hiring a temporary employee to redesign the town’s website last year, Bishop worked to create a part-time IT department, which was approved for the 2019–’20 fiscal year.
“Every dollar has to be looked at, we have to minimize expenses, and we have to balance what I call wants and needs,” Bishop said.
The town’s capital plan covers the years 2016 through 2020. Priorities are hugely important, Bishop said. One example is the town’s deteriorating jetties.
“We can’t fund $8 million at one time,” Bishop said. “We put $100,000 [in the budget] for each jetty starting this year.”
The town has hired a consultant, who is working with the state’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection to obtain a certificate allowing the town to replace all eight jetties. Bishop expects the certificate by the end of this month.
If the town decides the jetty project should take a higher priority, “then we’ll move more money into capital,” Bishop said.
As for the two-way radio infrastructure project, there is money in the capital plan for it, he said.
“I felt very strongly that...we’re not going to give you $1.4 million,” Bishop said. “We now have a committee. We now have a consultant.”
The consultant’s recommendations are expected at the end of this month, he said.
Grants and Funding
“As long as I’ve been here,” Bishop said, “we have at least half a dozen departments that every year have submitted” grant proposals. While the former town planner submitted proposals for the Town Center, proposals have been and are being made in other areas as well, such as health, public works, and policing.
“At least $1 million this past year has been received in grants because we’ve worked at this together,” he said.
Hazard Mitigation Plan
Westbrook has hired a consultant to update the town’s 2014 Hazard Mitigation Plan, and that consultant met with stakeholders earlier this year, Bishop said.
The consultant’s report, which is expected in November, “will lay out specifically what Westbrook can do and where the sources of funding are,” he said.
A survey of residents showed that sidewalks are a high priority and the town has allocated $50,000 each year for five years for engineering costs, Bishop said.
But that has not been enough. So the Planning Commission, together with the town’s zoning enforcement officer, worked on a grant proposal that Bishop submitted through the River COG for a federal sidewalk grant. After a rigorous process, the plan was submitted to the federal government for funding, along with just two others.
“If the federal government—that’s if—releases the funds after Jan. 1, we could get close to a million dollars,” Bishop said.
This will fund the town’s entire sidewalk plan, connecting sidewalks from Old Saybrook almost to the Clinton line, according to Bishop, and “will complete a number of sidewalks that are not connected now. It will go up the Essex Road and up to the YMCA. Those are the main arteries that we want.”
“Of course there are some empty stores down there,” said Bishop, “but it’s not for lack of trying.”
Retail across the country is struggling because of online purchasing, he said. So the owner of several properties on the town center’s east side has been before the Planning Commission, working toward installing non-retail businesses.
“Those plans are on the drawing board,” Bishop said.
The town is moving toward a new policing model that Bishop believes will enhance police services while saving money. After one of the town’s two resident troopers was reassigned, the town opted to replace him with a full-time constable. That position has been posted. The plan is to hire a second full-time constable in the next budget cycle, said Bishop.
While salary and benefits for a full-time constable can run around $90,000 per year (compared to roughly $210,000 for a resident trooper), Bishop said that applicants are often retired state troopers, whose benefits are paid for by the state.
“They’re trained to a higher level,” Bishop maintained. “And you save on benefits.”
Town Hall is the last of the town buildings that requires upgrades and $170,000 has been set aside in the capital budget for “upgrades as they’re needed,” Bishop said. There is also a separate maintenance budget.
“I think the public has shown that they have faith and confidence in what we’re trying to do,” Bishop said. “I’m constantly communicating. My door is open any time anybody wants to come in.”
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