On November 3, the Clinton Taxpayer’s Association (CTA) hosted a forum for the first selectman candidates at town hall. CTA president Pamela Fritz explained that each candidate would have an opportunity for an introductory speech, followed by a question and answer period by questions provided by the CTA, followed by questions from the audience.
“The focus will be on the issues,” added Fritz.
Questions from the audience were submitted in written form with name(s) required.
Rev. Chris Horvath from the First Church of Christ Congregational moderated the discussion.
The candidates include: incumbent First Selectman William “Willie” Fritz (D), Selectman Carol Walter (R) and write-in candidate Vincent Cimino.
Here are some highlights and summations from the forum:
Cimino: I am here for the same reason you are all here – I am concerned about the future of Clinton. We have a decades-long wastewater issue, severely overtaxing of residents, businesses leaving town and an education system that can do better.
Fritz: In the past six years since becoming first selectman, I have brought in $5 million in grants to the town – something that was not seen in 20 years. There have been improvements – the marina is one of the best on the shoreline and the beach will be. I support the Morgan School project and the Building Committee’s proposal. The most cost-efficient way is to build a new school. It needs to go to referendum so the people can decide. Clinton has gone from a ranking of #18 in small towns our size in Connecticut Magazine’s poll to #7. I think I’ve done a pretty good job in the last six years.
Walter: I am finishing up my second year on the Board of Selectmen. I was born and raised in Branford and attended UConn. In 1978 I moved to Clinton after marrying Bill Walter. For 34 years I have raised two kids in town and operated two separate family businesses. We pay taxes in town. My mother and father-in-law (age 87) who were born and raised in Clinton are here. This is where are hearts are. My running mates, John Giannotti and Kim Simoncini, were both raised here. They have children in the school system and keep their businesses here. Our taxes are too high to maintain businesses here and that’s the reason why I am running.
Question: What do you think is the most important issue in town and how would you address it?
Cimino: “The financial situation.” Residents are severely over-taxed and businesses are leaving. No effort has been made to increase the corporate tax base and replace those businesses who left. We need to heavily market the town of Clinton.
Fritz: “The economy.” Despite the economy the town is in good shape financially. We have a large undesignated fund balance and a great credit rating. The Bostitch site is on the market and the state’s Economic Development Commission is working with them. The state’s jobs bill was passed and we are in the forefront to get some of that money to revitalize downtown.
Walter: “Tax burden.” Clinton has a 24.92 mil rate, Old Saybrook’s is 14 and Westbrook’s is 17. We are paying way too much in taxes. For a town of 13,000 we pay $44 million in taxes. I haven’t seen any changes in downtown. We need a downtown we can look at with pride.
Question: It has been said that the cost per student in Clinton is rising faster than inflation. What are your plans to address this?
Fritz: I don’t think the information on this is accurate especially when compared to other towns. We have an enormous amount of special education costs that are state mandated. Our demographics are much different in comparison to other towns.
Walter: Costs for students in Clinton are at the top. Our per student costs are high, about $15,000 per student. We need to pursue grants that other school systems are getting. Madison just got a $30,000 grant to buy smart boards where that is a line item on our budget.
Cimino: I know that Superintendent Jack Cross and the teachers are doing the best they can but the budget is increasing when the student population is going down. We need to really scrutinize the BOE budget. The teacher’s union has been understanding in the past and needs to be in the future. We need to keep the BOE budget at a reasonable level.
Question: Do you support a new Morgan School?
Walter: If someone said I’ll give you $50 million to build one, we’d all be thrilled. Of course we all want a new school. My problem is I’m not sure we are at the point to decide. I read the Gilbane report and I am not convinced of the facts and figures. I am undecided. If the best direction is a new Morgan, I am behind it, but there are a lot more factors involved. There is a difference between wants and needs.
Cimino: It matters little whether I want a new Morgan – what matters is if the residents want it. I’d like to see a phased-in renovation. Some features of the school such as the double gymnasium and the auditorium should remain. If we build new, it will be 2018 before a student would walk through the door.
Fritz: I’ve been clear on my position – I support a new school. I have sat in on every building committee meeting for the past two years. The committee has done their due diligence. The renovation costs are prohibitive. I’ve spent a lot of time in that building and it’s embarrassing. I hope the town gets the opportunity to vote on it.
Question: Do you support spending $2 million to renovate the old police station?
Cimino: I’d like to see it as a community center for things such as concerts and art shows with a concession stand to serve the outside and inside. The costs can be considerably less.
Fritz: We inherited this building when the new police station was built and it is a historical building. The initial plan to move the senior meals center there (they serve 100 meals a day out of town hall) and for the consolidation of office space, social services, seniors, etc. was approved by the Board of Selectmen. I think the seniors and the other services go hand-in-hand for the space.
Walter: I am vehemently opposed to spending $2 million on this building. You could building a new building two times the size and spend half the amount. Then it goes on the town’s books. We will need to heat it, cool it, carpet it, mow it, etc. It is a big waste of the taxpayer’s dollars.
Question: The town has a wastewater issue. How do you plan to solve it and do you support a wastewater treatment plant?
Fritz: I have always supported a wastewater system. When I took office, the town was looking at a central plant or central discharge into a large body of water. Then things changed and towns were allowed to have a subsurface discharge in several locations. Every property that needs this solution is on the list including the many manufactured homes in town. We are going forward – the WPCC (Water Pollution Control Commission) is meeting two times a month. We are making good progress.
Walter: It’s 33 years later and there’s still nothing but talk. We have spent a fortune on engineers and testing and more testing and at this moment we do not have a concrete plan. Willie fired the entire WPCC panel, many of whom had spent 10 years on it and they all had to start at zero four years ago. Why has it taken 20 years and countless thousands of dollars?
Cimino: There has been too much time and too much money wasted on this issue. We need to take the Sciongay/Schrempp property by imminent domain. We do not know if the five properties the WPCC are studying will work. Let’s move forward with a plan.
Question: The candidates were asked to rank (1 being the worst 10 being the best) how the town performed in its preparation and handling of Hurricane Irene.
Walter: overall, a “6”
Cimino: I grade it a “9”
Fritz: CL&P told us we were the best along the shoreline
Question: The group sponsoring this debate, the CTA, supports a zero percent tax increase for the upcoming budget. Do you think you can achieve this and do you support it?
Fritz: I want any increase to be as low as possible – that is always a goal. I can’t promise a zero increase. We don’t want to cut services to residents and students. Our costs are going up just like at home. We have reduced staff through attrition in the towns and the schools.
Walter: It is my goal to have a zero tax rise. It is a huge undertaking and it’s the reason I’m sitting here. We have to rectify the situation. We are over-taxed. We have to find a way to make this work - it is what the people want. The reason we had three referendums last year is because the people said we don’t want this budget.
Cimino: After we defeated the budget last year, the Board of Finance had a meeting and asked residents for their ideas. I came forward with a flat budget. We have a $1.2 million surplus. In addition, 600 people came out to vote and indebted the town by $9.4 million in the bonding referendum. The CTA should circulate a petition and demand another referendum and not an ‘all or nothing’ one.
Question: Are you in favor of a town manager form of government where there is a professional town manager hired who can be guided by the Board of Selectmen?
Cimino: I am opposed to this. It wouldn’t work for a town the size of Clinton. This is what we are doing right now – looking at hiring the right person who would provide for the growth, prosperity and safety of the town and its residents.
Fritz: The difference is choice. Right now, you have a choice with the candidates for first selectman. With a town manager, you don’t. To me the position is a high-priced mayor. It cost one town $300,000 to sever the ties with their town manager. In two years, you can say goodbye to the first selectman. I believe the town meeting form of government works if people come out and participate.
Walter: I am in favor of a town manager. To go through this election process every two years doesn’t work – you don’t need someone looking to be re-elected every two years. The Board of Selectmen still exists, but the town manager is someone who is educated in the management of a town. There’s no on-the-job training for them. It would provide a flow of the 10-year plans. It is one person who implements the desires of the taxpayers.
...more to come