Transparency in the Board of Education (B.O.E.) budget and economic development were the top issues at the Wesleyan Student Assembly sponsored Mayoral Debate Thursday. Christine Bourne, who is running for Mayor as an Independent Party candidate, was invited but was not present to participate in the debate. In opening statements, Dan Drew, the Democrat challenger, mentioned his family and he spoke of having great hope for the future. He spoke of his background as an investigative journalist, stating that he had uncovered political corruption in campaign financing which resulted in an indictment. He thinks that Middletown has a long way to go and that increasing transparency in government will increase efficiency. He believes that Middletown is a beautiful and positive place and that there is more we can do. He said that in his position on the City's Common Council he helped to pass a reduction of the tax mill rate by 3/10. He wants to see a focus on growing our economic base by targeting growth industries like green building, biotechnology and aerospace. He wants to see a refocus on public education. He says that the conflict between the City and the Board of Education has distracted from the ability to concentrate on the schools. He sees a lot of potential and wants to move the City forward.
In his opening statement, incumbent Republican Mayor Sebastian Giulliano talked about how he sees different parts of the Middletown community interacting with each other, and his personal history of having lived in the North End neighborhood on Main Street for much of his childhood, and then on Oak Street not far from Wesleyan University where the debate was held. He mentioned how the presence of Wesleyan had played a huge part in his childhood and plays a huge role in the City. He believes that Middletown is doing well and has a stable tax base. “There is much to do. We are an oasis in the State of Connecticut in that we seem to be doing well where other communities our size are not doing as well. What has done that is a stable tax base, solid public safety planning and good infrastructure.” he said. Though there is more potential. Giuliano concluded his opening statement by saying that with solid public safety, good infrastructure, and good planning and economic development the City is in good shape.
When asked about the relationship between Wesleyan and Middletown, Drew spoke of ideas for the future while Mayor Giuliano reflected more on past history. Drew responded that music has been shown to help students' ability to focus and and that one possibility is to link Wesleyan's Green Street Arts Center in with the public school system to improve mathematics skills and test scores and reading comprehension. He wants to see more effort in getting more small locally owned retail stores downtown where students may find employment or spend money which will improve the local economy. Mayor Giuliano spoke of how there once was a tradition in of local families “adopting” Wesleyan students, providing them home cooked meals and the like, but that in the 1960s during the Vietnam War era those relationships soured somewhat. He sees the relationship between Middletown and Wesleyan building back up again in a different form and he lauded former President Bennett and current President Roth for continuing to reconnect the City and the University. Giuliano says he always sees Wesleyan students every Friday when he is mentoring students at Macdonough School. He says that the connections that Wesleyan students have all over the country and the world can't be quantified but enhance our community, and that Wesleyan and the City have mutually influenced each other's culture and character and that is a very healthy and he wants to see it continue.
Giuliano says that the City's financial health is strong but it could be stronger. He says he grew the city's fund balance up to about 17 or 18 million dollars but in the last few years it has been reduced to as low as it can go without reducing the bond rating. He acknowledges that he has had disagreements with the Common Council, who he says has “dipped into the fund balance a little more than they should probably,” to which Drew responded that Mayor has taken money out of the fund balance just as the Common Council has. The Mayor countered that it was only due to the fact that he had been so successful in raising the fund balance that there were funds available to take, but now it is time to grow that balance back up again. The Mayor stated that the pension fund is fully funded and that is a commitment to the City employees. He said that the Council tends to underproject expenses and overproject revenues, and that in the end the public ends up paying for that. Dan Drew responded that the pension fund was estimated to get a better return for the market than what he thinks it is realistically going to get, and that causes a scenario where the budget looks balanced on paper but that may not be realistic. Giuliano countered that the pension fund is not a part of the City's general fund and it's projected growth does not affect the budget at all. Giuliano spoke of a need to stabilize the tax rate because investors want to see stability and steady growth, and how he has tried to do that but that he does not have the control over the budget. “The budget we get, the mill rate we get is what they [The Common Council] give you.” Drew agreed that the overall financial health of the city is solid, however, he says that taxes have gone up consistently every year except for 2009 when he says that the Common Council lowered the Mayor's proposed tax increase to zero. Drew said that during the Mayor's term in office that the Mayor has proposed tax increases every year and that while it is true that the Mayor does not have the last word on the budget, the Council has always passed budgets with tax rates that are lower than what the Mayor proposed. Drew's ideas are to reduce taxes for seniors and to aggressively recruit businesses in growing industries in order to grow the middle class by bringing good jobs to Middletown.
Asked how to improve Middletown's business climate going forward, Drew presented a vision of targeting growth industries and courting business to locate in Middletown using economic incentives, therefore growing the grand list and creating and economy of scale. Drew says this will address the most important issue which is keeping people employed. Drew expressed the need to capitalize on our strengths to insulate ourselves against the greater economic downturns. Aerospace and aerospace manufacturing, green technology, and biotechnology research are industries that have good paying jobs with good health benefits and will bring a lot of tax revenue into the city and that we need to be extremely aggressive about bringing those types of businesses here, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, Wesleyan, and other key players, Drew said. Mayor Giuliano expressed that he is pleased with the Economic Development Director and Chamber of Commerce. He cites Grand List growth and says we have not seen the decline that other towns have, but that we face a problem of competing with other Connecticut communities for Connecticut business, so trying to attract business from outside of the state is going to put us in competition with all the other states that have better business climates. Right now, Giuliano says, we are “raiding other towns” and we need improvement at the State level otherwise we are not going to compete with other states where it s less expensive to operate. Drew says that being in competition with other states is not a reason to avoid trying to court business to come here. He disagrees that Connecticut is too expensive a place to do business and says that a national study was reported within the last year that said that when adjusted for education level and cost of living, Connecticut is actually one of the more affordable environments for doing business. Giuliano concludes in saying that we have a great location near the highways and the river and Wesleyan and its many resources are a huge draw. Drew agrees that these assets should be highlighted, and emphasizes that should be done outside of Connecticut, and not just in-state.
When asked about upcoming civic projects, Mayor Giuliano mentioned only one, the Eckersley Hall Senior Center building project, about which he spoke at length, explaining the process that has led up to the point where we are with the project at the present. Drew spoke of the importance of the future riverfront development and all the possibilities there, as well as the recent vote to join the Mattabessett District which will allow the City to decommission its old waste treatment plant and pave the way for the waterfront development..
On public safety, Drew stated the need for a national search for a police chief, more foot patrol in the North End, work on attaining accreditation for the police department, and increasing the size of the police force with an emphasis on community policing.
Guiliano pointed out that he has added two or three officers to the force every year. He wants the former U.S. Army site on Mile Lane to become a fire training facility but says that would only happen “If the federal government ever gets around to cleaning it up.” He also mentioned a need to search for a new police chief.
It seems that the candidates had different interpretations of a question about how to increase and streamline communications across City departments. Giuliano spoke mostly about technology and said that we need to upgrade and “stop treating I.T. like electronic maintenance people. I.T. needs to be a part of every department and every department needs to be content providers for the intranet site and internet site. We need to come into the 21st century, and right now we are going from the 19th to the 20th.”
Dan Drew had a more fundamental interpretation of the question and said that to increase communication we need to start talking again. Barriers need to be broken down, specifically between the City and the Board of Education, he said. “We need to communicate regularly, not just when there is an issue but also when things are good. It is incumbent on the Mayor as a leader to resolve disagreements amicably so that we don't have to resort to lawyers and court.” To this, Giuliano replied that communication requires two willing parties and that is is difficult to have a dialogue when you are the only willing party. He says that The Board of Education cites CT General Statutes as their reply to anything stated or asked of them. Giuliano called for the majority to respect the minority; saying both the B.O.E. and the Council need to be collegial.
Asked about the City's role in supporting the arts, Drew said that “arts give people the vibrancy of life that they deserve and make us distinctive, as well as feeding into the economic development of the city.” Dan Drew would like to see arts more fully incorporated into the public school curriculum. Giuliano said that every person is an artist and everything can be a work of art. Giuliano said the Chamber of Commerce has recently come to realize that art is an economic generator and that we do a good job already of incorporating arts into the schools. “We need to get back to the artistic twist to utilitarian public assets,” said Giuliano. Dan Drew agrees with this and cites the city of Charleston South Carolina as a place that has done good work with historic preservation in architecture that we can use as an example.
Regarding major initiatives of the next two years, Giuliano drilled in his three top items of public safety, education, and infrastructure. He spoke of relocating the emergency management center to city hall, increasing transparency in education budgets, and maintaining roads and making sure “water gets there and goes away when you flush.”
Giuliano explained that $70 million out of $130 million dollars of the City's budget every year goes to the B.O.E.,and that teachers should not be buying their own supplies, and there should not be gaps left unfilled when teachers retire. “If we focus on public safety, education, and infrastructure, everything else is easier and you've got something to sell.”
Drew countered that the current administration has been hurtful to education. The Mayor's zero proposed increase forced teacher layoffs, he said, and the Mayor initiated a criminal investigation which has not yielded any results or arrests. Drew says that the Mayor claimed $2 Million dollars was missing which turned out to be line item transfers and that these serious charges did damage to the system. “The posture has to turn around from being destructive to being cooperative. To accuse people of being criminals is destructive, it hurts public education and it doesn't help.”
After this portion of the debate was over, the moderator began asking questions submitted by the audience. The first question asked what qualifications a police chief should have and Dan Drew heavily stressed honesty and said the chief must have the respect of the force and a belief in and knowledge of community policing. Drew spoke of his opposition to the appointment of Patrick McMahon as police chief because of the question of McMahon's residency and all the miles that he was putting on his City owned patrol car presumably commuting to Norwich in it. Giuliano had this little gem of a retort, “If Pat McMahon dropped dead tomorrow where would we probate his estate? Middletown.” and called the residency question a “red herring.” He continued to speak at length about McMahon but didn't name any specific characteristics he would like to see in a future police chief.
The next question was asking whether each candidate agrees or disagrees with the state statute that requires B.O.E. funding to be the same or more as the prior year. Giuliano proceeded to talk about the current B.O.E. and how they will give a litany or story about what will happen if the budget is not increased. He said that the law has to be followed and that he would be more comfortable if there was more transparency.
Drew immediately answered the question saying that he does not agree with the state law because it reduces local flexibility and he thinks we should have the option to adjust as we see fit. Public education is not a priority of the current administration, he claimed, evidenced by the lawsuits that have cost the city hundreds of thousands off dollars which he says could have been used for educational needs.
On transparency in the B.O.E. budget, Drew said that the budget is available for anyone to see online and it shows line items. He says that it could have more detail but it is there. Drew said there is no line of communication right now and it shows a failure of leadership, and that communication needs to be increased and maintained. To this Giuliano said that the best way to increase transparency is to elect a B.O.E. that is open to it and he pointed out that all five members who are up for re-election are not running. All eleven candidates at a recent B.O.E. forum talked about line item budgets and leadership. “Some mean what they say and some don't” Giuliano said.
Asked about how to combat hunger, Giuliano talked about the success of the challenge grant program for Amazing Grace Food Pantry, saying that program needs to continue. Giuliano said “This is a compassionate community” that responds to need. Drew mentioned Community Development Block Grants, $90,000 of which was approved for the senior center but he feels should have been used for the food pantry. That use of the funds would have helped seniors more, Drew said.
On community gardens, Dan Drew proclaimed himself a “big fan” and mentioned Erin Street garden and the gardens created by Larry Owens's Middletown United Fathers group. He said that gardens help us use food to share, have less pesticide impact, and reduce carbon footprints from transportation and we should be encouraging that as a City.
Giuliano mentioned Long Lane, the Wesleyan farm, and Councilman David Bauer's interest in using state land to create a farming program in cooperation with the VoAg school, including experimental techniques that are “something worth looking into.” Giuliano says he has great respect for gardeners.
The last question asked was what are the strengths of your opponent. Giuliano seemed to draw attention to Dan Drew's young age by saying Drew's enthusiasm is his strength. He also said that Drew is an “avid leader”, expresses his concepts well, and could be a good motivator. He even said that some day he might make a good Mayor, but not this time around.
Drew said that Giuliano is a good family man and that the health of his family speaks volumes to his character, that he is devoted to Middletown, he means what he says, he has great taste in music, and he is dynamic and well-read. At this point Drew interjected an anecdote about a prior conversation he had with the Mayor about music.
In closing, Drew spoke of the pressing challenges the City faces and the need for new solutions, and he said that the challenges we have now are a product of the recent approach that does not work. “We can conduct City business without conflict.” he said. He wants to make the city more affordable, and focus on the attributes and strengths we have to insulate us from problems that the state and nation are facing.
In Giulano's conclusion, he said Middletown has continued to prosper and has done better than other towns, and that he is proud to lead all the people that have made that happen. Sometimes that means getting out pf people's way, he says, adding that the Common Council and B.O.E. have been under Democratic control for 18 years and 46 years, respectively, and that he's only been Mayor for 6 years.
Having reported all that, if you're still reading this, click here to read a quick log of what really happened at the debate that night:.