'Never could I have imagined what 2020 would bring': Kupchick addresses state of Fairfield

In a Monday speech, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick spoke to both the challenges and the successes Fairfield had last year.

In a Monday speech, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick spoke to both the challenges and the successes Fairfield had last year.

LaBella, Joshua /

FAIRFIELD — First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick reflected on the town’s many challenges and successes during her State of the Town Address.

“When I stood before you a year ago to deliver the state of the town, never could I have imagined what 2020 would bring,” Kupchick said. “And at that time, never did I anticipate the many obstacles that our town would face.”

On Monday evening, Kupchick gave the annual speech for the second time during her tenure as first selectwoman. In kind, Representative Town Meeting Democratic Caucus Leader Jill Vergara also gave a speech reviewing the years events.

The two touched many of the same points, praising town employees for their efforts during the pandemic and support for addressing policies and procedures that led to the town’s fill pile scandal, which resulted in the arrest of several Fairfield officials connected to contaminated soil.

But the two seemed to differ on the topic of the Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program, which passed last month.

“I was excited to bring this proposal to the RTM, and was pleased it passed last month,” Kupchick said. “17 employees elected into the voluntary retirement program and, since then, we have been working to analyze operations, identify efficiencies in our town government that will be implemented and included in my proposed budget.”

Vergara said she can continue to respect her colleagues in elected positions while disagreeing with them on policy decisions, noting asking questions and voicing concerns is not partisan. She said RTM Democrats pushed back on the initial $357,000 estimated cost per employee for the plan, which resulted in Kupchick withdrawing the original proposal and renegotiating with the unions.

“The cost of the plan dropped by nearly $100,000 per participant. Because of Democrat-led opposition, the First Selectwoman also committed to a headcount reduction of at least three employees,” she said. “By pushing back on the original plan—and asking important questions—we saved the town millions of dollars and made the process and analysis much more transparent.”

Fairfield also found itself in the midst of a global pandemic.

Kupchick said the beginning of the pandemic was a “concerning and uncertain time” for her as a newly elected leader of the town.

“Like all organizations and corporations and governments alike, the COVID pandemic was a critical development which took everyone by complete surprise,” she said.

As of Tuesday, 3,650 Fairfield residents had tested positive for coronavirus and 189 people have died after contracting the disease. Kupchick urged people not to forget those who became sick or died during the pandemic.

“It is during trying times like these that people of great characters so often rise to the occasion to benefit all of us,” Kupchick said, going on to praise Health Department Director Sands Cleary and Fire Chief Denis McCarthy.

Residents also rallied to support local businesses, held weekly food drives and donated to the town’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, she said.

Kupchick said she was proud that Fairfield's town hall only closed for three days, while other towns closed theirs for months. She said it enabled her team to put together the necessary safety protocols needed to maintain services, including building out a contact tracing program.

She noted 124 jobs were saved and 14 created through town-administered grants, 50 eateries received outdoor dining permits through an expedited process with no fees, Fairfield’s commercial tax base grew from 9 to more than 11 percent and more than 10,000 hot meals were delivered.

Kupchick said she will continue to work to develop “key sites,” including the Exide Battery property and the Fairfield Metro center station.

She also addressed the upcoming budget.

“Passing a zero percent tax increase, with all the needs of our town, was no easy task,” she said. “It has presented real challenges for me crafting this next budget.”

Kupchick said her initial focus in office was to clean up corruption and environmental contamination in connection with the fill pile scandal. She also wanted to provide transparency for residents and new leadership and management for town employees.

“I am taking these long-term and widespread challenges head on to restore trust and accountability in our town government,” she said.

Kupchick said her administration is working with state and federal environmental agencies, along with the environmental attorney and environmental professionals, to ensure the town is following testing and remediation requirments.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic has had an impact on these agencies’ ability to quickly review and sign off on our remediation plans, and that continues to delay our ability to move forward,” she said.

While the fill pile scandal has continued to be a “black eye” for the community, Kupchick said, cleaning up contamination and corruption associated with it remains a top priority.

Vergara said fixing the policies and procedures that led to the fill pile scandal are areas of bi-partisan agreement. There was bi-partisan approval in October 2019 for auditing and revising public works’ procedures, resulting in 75 recommendations to improve town operations and strengthen internal controls.

But, Vergara said she worries not enough corrective measures have occurred, adding the last status report provided to town bodies in January showed only 17 of the 75 recommendations were resolved. While some of the most critical recommendations are still in process, she said, there is no timeline for completion of the majority.

“Correcting these flawed policies and procedures needs to be one of the administration’s highest priorities so that the mistakes of the past do not get repeated,” Vergara said. “The only way to do so is to put the proper protocols in place. These are all things that we can work together on achieving for the town, and we look forward to doing so.”