Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Westfield Residents Association Hosts Meet the Candidate Night

About 100 Westfield residents gathered last night at Third Congregational Church on Miner St. to hear from the candidates running for Mayor, the Common Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission. For the Common Council, all eight Democratic candidates, five Republican candidates, and one Independent candidate were present. Two of three mayoral candidates were there as were four P&Z Commissioners. State Senator Paul Doyle and State Representative Matt Lesser were present, and a few Board of Education members were also in the audience.

The Mayoral Race
Election day must be close, for it was a lively evening! Mayor Giuliano and his Democratic challenger, Dan Drew, sparred over the budget, cuts to town services and the status of Middletown's Senior Center. Drew accused the Mayor of breaking campaign promises by raising taxes, and Giuliano responded by pointing out that times are tough, and if the town doesn't make hard decisions now to reconcile income and spending, it will be even more painful for the town in the future. During the Q&A session, a young girl, maybe 9 or 10, asked the single best question of the evening: "Why do either of you think you're better than the other?" Giuliano and Drew answered with polite flattery for each other, but then Mayor Giuliano pointed out that the parties have different approaches to solving the town's issues, and that voters need to consider carefully what they are voting for.

On the subject of the Senior Center, Mayor Giuliano pointed out that the Center's current location was a temporary "fix" chosen 40 years ago, and that the proposed $25 million Senior Center at Veterans Park could not be built any time soon because of budget constraints. "We're still absorbing the sticker shock of the new high school," Giuliano quipped, "and we're going to be feeling that for the next nine years while we pay off the bond." Giuliano did say that Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro helped Middletown get $190,000 that will be used to renovate and update the current Senior Center. Dan Drew agreed that Middletown doesn't have the money to build a new Senior Center now, but he argued that Middletown could do better for its seniors than it currently is: "We have to prioritize our seniors...they're the reason Middletown is what it is today."

Giuliano and Drew seriously disagreed over how much is an acceptable balance in the town's reserve fund. Drew accused Giuliano of "wanting to be like Greenwich, with a fund balance of $130 million (noting that it would take 127 years for Middletown to accumulate that much given the fact that our current fund balance is less than $20 million)," and Giuliano responded that there was nothing wrong with wanting to be a little like Greenwich and adopting the attitudes that have made that town so successful. Drew also argued that any funds in reserve that are above the amount needed to preserve the town's bond rating really just represent an overtaxing of Middletown residents without any corresponding benefit. Giuliano replied that taxes are up over the last few years because the Democratic budgets don't bear any semblance to reality: "There is a substantial gap in our budget, and someone (you) will eventually have to pay the difference. The Democrats proposed a $129 million budget in Fiscal 2009, but they spent $132 million, so the money has to come from somewhere."

The Common Council Race
The Republican and Democratic candidates for Common Council had ten minutes per party to discuss their respective agenda for the upcoming election. Council member Gerry Daley spoke for the Democrats, listing his party's priorities as keeping taxes low, maintaining essential services, protecting Middletown's environment, promoting economic prosperity, and being responsive to changing community needs. Daley blasted Mayor Giuliano repeatedly for the mayor's 1 mil tax increase proposal, saying "The Democratic majority felt taxpayers couldn't take another tax increase, so we fought hard to protect the taxpayers." Daley also spoke at length on the Democrats commitment to maintaining open space.

Deputy Mayor Joe Bibisi responded for the Republicans: "The mayor had to make hard choices...if you don't, you get into trouble...we're going to really pay for the services that were kept in the budget." Bibisi also mentioned several examples of Mayor Giuliano's accomplishments, including the renegotiation of the Clean Energy Contract and the establishment of a Code Enforcement Committee for the town. Middletown now has the ability to go after blight and cluttering on private property, and thus far 81 citations have been issued with only 21 of those citations still outstanding. Property owners can be fined $100 per day for non-compliance with the town's regulations. Mayor Giuliano is also responsible for establishing police walking beats in the North and South ends of town, and there are future plans to reclaim the river front by tearing down the sewage treatment plant and developing the Harbor Park area. Councilman Phil Pessina added to Bibisi's comments, saying, "It is irresponsible to put money into the budget if it's not in hand already....We the Republicans are going to move the city in a more fiscally responsible manner."

Running for reelection as an Independent, Earle Roberts urged the voters to consider the quality of the candidates elected as well as what they will be elected for. "A tree grows from its roots, not its leaves," Roberts commented, "and so you voters need to chose people who will focus on the economy and make good choices for our city."

Budget questions
During the Q&A time for Common Council Candidates, this EYE reporter asked why the $2 million from the sale of Cucia Park was taken for general operating expenses instead of protection of additional open space or the creation of a new park. Councilman Daley's reply: "Well, we don't actually have that money yet, but we (the Democrats) have only taken $1.5 million of that money for operating expenses. The Republicans wanted to take all the money. But, when we do get that money, we hope to replace the open space. The city owns some of the land in Bysiewicz Industrial Park, and when it sells that, that will be money available for open space." Councilman David Bauer responded for the Republicans: "The taking of any money from the sale of Cucia Park has put us in a hole for the next budget cycle." Bauer went on to argue that this $2 million is not recurring income, so it shouldn't have been used to close a gap in this year's budget because that just pushes the gap into next year instead of dealing with it permanently.

Board of Education concerns
Another Westfield resident asked why the Board of Education keeps asking for budget increases without demonstrating how or what the School Budget is spent on: "There are rumors that the money isn't spent wisely, so why isn't the school budget itemized?" Councilman Bauer (R) commented that there is a Democratic majority on the Board of Education, and that one would think that the party could work together. However, in his opinion, the politics that happens at City Hall is nothing compared to what happens at the BOE, and that he believes that the School Administration runs the School Board instead of the other way around. Councilman Tom Serra (D) noted that while the Common Council is the fiscal authority for the BOE, once the money is handed over, the School Board is an independent entity and the Common Council can't control how the money is spent. Board of Education member Sheila Daniels (R) was present and was allowed to comment: "The minority party has no say in the budget. There are no checks and balances for the Superintendent because the majority just does what the Superintendent wants. If you want to hold the BOE accountable for its actions, you have to change the composition of the Board."

Accountability in Public Office
Another resident spoke about the Community Conversations that happened about a year ago, noting that accountability was a huge priority for Middletown residents. "So how can the Water Department not chase people who owe on their bills? And everyone knows that Moody is overcrowded, yet the Superintendent hired an architect to tell us that Moody is overcrowded. Where is this accountability that everyone wants?" Councilman Serra (D) replied: "Accountability is my thing...there currently isn't an evaluation instrument for city employees. The Water/Sewer issue is the Mayor's issue to take care of with his directors, which he has done, but we need to negotiate an evaluative instrument for the 500 city employees who currently don't get evaluated." Councilman Bauer (R) commented that the solution to accountability is transparency. "I'm going to go out on a limb and say Republicans are better in this election because we're more committed to making changes."

Union givebacks rejected during budget process
The final question for the Common Council candidates asked why the Democratic Common Council rejected Union concessions during the budget process: "if towns all across America accepted similar givebacks because of the state of the economy, why didn't Middletown?" Councilman Daley (D) replied: "If the Democratic Council found a way to reject the mayor's budget of a 1 mil tax increase plus cuts to give you a budget with no tax increase, no cuts and no givebacks, why are you arguing with that? Besides, the givebacks had strings attached...there would have had to have been specific cuts in the budget and we didn't think the unions should dictate the budget process." Councilman Pessina (R) argued that the unions knew what hard times the town was facing and came forward to help out.

(Author's note: I do admit to having been a bit confused about the budget during the heated party arguments. Both parties spoke of a deficit this year between revenue and proposed spending. The Republican Mayor's proposed budget called for a 1 mil tax increase, budget cuts and union concessions to close the gap. According to a May 15 Eye article, the Democratic Council was able to increase expenditures, reject union concessions and not raise taxes, by using as current revenue $1.5M derived from the future sale of Cucia Park and by increasing the amount of money withdrawn from the Fund Balance).

Planning and Zoning
Four Planning & Zoning candidates were present and had three minutes each to speak. Les Adams said that his main objectives were to promote rational development, to eliminate sprawl and to reclaim the waterfront. Nick Fazzino stated that the riverfront is an important issue for economic purposes, but that P&Z can't forget about people either. Farming, transportation and parking were other key Fazzino concerns, and he commented that Republicans can bring a much needed change to help Middletown move forward. Independent Michael Johnson said the riverfront is key and that Middletown should be able to get stimulus money to help with that development. Finally, Ken McClellan said his two goals were to make sure property owners can do what they want to their properties without interfering with their neighbors' similar rights, and to review the P&Z regulations for needed updating and clarifying.

This EYE reporter asked if P&Z ever consults with the Board of Education to ensure that new development isn't overcrowding our schools (i.e. preventing a future Moody situation in another part of town), and current P&Z member Deborah Kleckowski stated that no such interaction happens and it is in fact discouraged.

Even after the formal Q&A time was up, Westfield residents lingered a long while, talking informally with the candidates and socializing with longtime friends. Many of the candidates had acknowledged the critical role the Westfield Residents Association has played over the years, and most of the credit was directed (and rightly so) at Chairwoman Arlene Rich. Politics aside, the many candidates that participated in last night's forum represented decades of service to Middletown. Thank you to all who participated!


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sheila Daniels for telling the public about how the Board of Ed operates! We need a change, voters!

Anonymous said...

I too found the back and forth over the budget to be a bit confusing. I think both sides made some good points, but did not feel that either side was clearly right on the entire issue. But it is really disappointing that the budget was "resolved" with a mayoral veto and a council override. I don't understand why both sides couldn't negotiate an acceptable compromise. None of the budget issues raised seemed irreconcilable. And I'm concerned that none of the candidates appear to be interested in finding common ground. Maybe instead of the parties fighting to change the individual faces in office, they should focus on changing their attitudes and learn to work together for the common good.