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Tom Banisch’s office isn’t messy, but it would be hard to call it tidy. The long burnished table is set haphazardly with a handful of papers, an empty box. The desk bristles with documents, folders, personal items. A giant check is leaned casually against one wall.
Banisch, a Republican seeking a third term as Madison’s first selectman, said his office has indeed gotten its fair share of usage over the last four years, and not just by him.
“I was looking the other day at just how many people I’ve seen since I’ve been in here,” Banisch said. “And just the appointments that I’ve made are over 1,000. And that doesn’t even count the people...who just stopped in.”
Banisch comes from a business background. Guiding and leading a business that you own offers a different set of challenges and experiences than the job of heading up a town, he readily admitted. Over four years, Banish said he has both learned a lot, and found a lot of places where his focus and background has helped improve the town.
Being the sole decision maker, with his mistakes and success ultimately being his responsibility and affecting mostly your his interests, didn’t entirely prepare him for the kind of leadership that is expected in government.
“When I got here, it was different,” Banisch said. “To work as part of a board where I can’t just do everything I want to do—it took me a little while to learn what that was. But I think we’ve gotten along pretty well.”
Banisch was familiar with Madison’s government when he took office. He had served on two Charter Review commissions in the early 2000s, and also chaired the Beach & Recreation Commission and the Republican Town Committee leading up to his successful run for first selectman in 2015.
When Banisch spoke about Madison as a town, though, the story he told was when he first moved here, at a very difficult time personally.
In the mid-1980s, when his daughter was born three months premature, Banisch and his family moved to Madison in order to be close enough to visit her at a hospital in New Haven. He recalled watching his other two children playing in the water near the Surf Club as the family searched for houses along the shoreline, looking for solace as they dealt with an extremely uncertain time in their lives.
“We came here because we loved the town, and my kids loved the town. So that’s what Madison is to me,” Banisch said.
Banish now lives in the town center with his wife, Eileen Banisch, the executive director of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. He earned his B.A. in political science from Providence College and his MBA from UConn.
In his early years as first selectman, Banisch said he found success in the little things in infrastructure—fixing roads or drains.
As state monies decrease, Banisch said he wants people to know their taxes are being used to improve the town.
“We try to hold them down as best we can, but there’s always a tax increase,” Banisch said. “To my mind, if people’s taxes are going to be going up every year, and they’re driving around on pothole [covered] roads...or the storm drains are overflowing and nothing is working right, they get [ticked] off.”
Banisch named several specific areas, including Summer Hill Road, Opening Hill Road, and Race Hill Road where he successfully addressed resident complaints about damage or quality issues.
Operations are another area in which Banisch said he felt he has excelled. He cited improvements to the town’s operations and getting better deals on things like health insurance, pensions, and insurance services by reexamining providers or contracts, something his predecessors hadn’t done in some time, he said.
“We need to take a look at these things once in a while,” he said.
Looking to the future, Madison faces some difficult decisions on larger projects, namely the development of the Academy School property and a school district that will need large updates and possibly more reorganization. With that in mind, Banisch emphasized fiscal responsibility, saying his goal would be to “hold things steady” with taxes.
“We need to look at how we go forward, and how we borrow incrementally,” Banisch said.
Banisch said some of these larger projects might be “in danger,” at least as far as when they might be started or completed.
“They want to borrow $84 million all at once,” he said of the Board of Education’s four-school consolidation plan . “We don’t have that borrowing capability.”
Banisch said he had been working with Finance Director Stacy Nobitz on ways to finance these projects without seeing a huge jump in taxes.
“It’s a pretty complex financial conversation,” he said.
Banisch has been clear that he would prefer to sell Academy to a developer, though a survey commissioned by the town showed a majority of residents would like to see it turned into a community center. That $14 million project is likely to be on a referendum in May of next year.
Another issue in the town has been a lack of cooperation between the various elected boards, most notably between the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen last year. Other initiatives, including a collaborative “Tri-Board” formed to address updates to Madison’s aging schools, saw middling success before disbanding this past May.
Banisch admitted there had been conflicts and “head-butting” during his tenure, though he said he thought progress had been made. When asked if he had any specific ideas for fostering more cooperation among the boards, Banisch instead spoke of his outreach to the public, including a bi-weekly column that he writes and everyday conversations with residents.
“I communicate with the townspeople, and I tell them what I’m trying to do, and explain my rationale,” he said.
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