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Around 60 Westbrook residents turned up at Town Hall on the evening of Oct. 7 for a candidates forum that addressed issues ranging from the rainy-day fund to hazard mitigation. The forum was sponsored by the Westbrook Council of Beaches and moderated by Oxford Academy Headmaster Phil Cocchiola.
Republican First Selectman Noel Bishop is being challenged by Democrat Hiram Fuchs; Selectman John Hall III, a Republican, and George Pytlik, Jr., a Democrat, are running for selectman. After the first selectman race has been decided, the two remaining seats on the Board of Selectmen (BOS) will go to the two candidates with the most votes among the losing first selectman candidate and the two selectman candidates.
The candidates each gave opening and closing statements and all responded to questions posed by Cocchiola on behalf of the Council of Beaches. Questions from the audience followed.
Fuchs is a 12-year resident of Westbrook and a Connecticut State Marshal for Middlesex County who serves on the Town Center Revitalization Committee. The former owner and operator of a local driving school, Fuchs has an undergraduate degree in economics and a master’s in teaching. He decided to get involved in local politics after his child was injured on a playground, he explained.
“I didn’t like the answers that I got” when he approached Town Hall about the cut rock surface in the playground, he said. “Since then, I’ve learned there are a lot of issues in town. They make decisions behind closed doors and there’s no accountability and I’d like to change that.”
Bishop has served as first selectman for 12 years.
“My life began on a farm in South Dakota,” he said.
Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Bishop went on to earn a Yale graduate degree. After serving for 16 years as Dean of Quinnipiac University, Bishop became executive director of the Connecticut State Dental Association, where he lobbied at the state capitol, his “first introduction to really how government is and working with volunteers.”
Pytlik, a Westbrook native, is a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He has been renovating and expanding his local commercial property after a 2016 fire.
Pytlik was a “charter member of the town’s IT Committee,” he said. “[T]his is when I first personally experienced the lack of oversight and vision for the town.”
On the Zoning Commission, he’s obtained “firsthand perspective that the individuals and businesses face when they’re trying to develop their property.”
Hall has served as selectman for 10 years. He and his wife, Bonnie, own and operate Maple Breeze Farm, established by his family in 1635. He served on the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for 27 years, 25 as chair. He is president of a second small business, which employs seven people, he said.
“On the BOS, I spend a lot of time scrutinizing the budget,” he said. “I’m proud of our 10-year record of maintaining minimal budget increases” while maintaining services, Hall said.
All four candidates stated their support for maintaining a reserve fund in the recommended range of 12- to 15 percent of the town’s operating budget, citing events like Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene that necessitate emergency spending.
Hall said that the reserve fund is currently at 12.3 percent, and having that fund is “exactly what lowered our bonding rate” along with the town’s AA2 rating, he said.
After storms, Hall said, “[W]e’ve had to pay for...repairs right away rather than wait for FEMA reimbursement,” he explained. “You can’t let the damage sit there and try to figure out where to get the money from.”
Two-Way Radio Project
Pytlik expressed concern about “costs that are rising faster every year than inflation for our bond rates.
“After six years of inaction,” he continued, “the projected costs for the [two-way radio infrastructure project] have grown about $750,000 to $1.2 million. This is an increase of $75,000 every year or approximately seven percent. This is well above inflation and our bond rates. This is an example of a project that needs to be bonded before its expenses keep rising.”
The two-way radio infrastructure project came up at various points of the forum. Bishop agreed that it was an important project, but said it had hit some obstacles. A consultant was finally hired in July 2019 and “is in the process of finishing his work. I don’t think that [the project] is going to cost $1 million.”
“We’ve been accused of stalling,” Hall added. “I think that’s totally off the mark. This project was first proposed by the fire department a number of years ago, that’s true, but then they withdrew it for a couple of years.
“We’ve been working on it. We’ve got an ad hoc committee working on it. I don’t think that it’s fair to run out and spend $1 million of our money without having a consultant give us advice, a third party, a person that doesn’t have a vested interest in this,” he said
Toward the end of the evening, Vincent Gentile, a resident and volunteer firefighter for “almost 15 years,” asked Bishop why the town was now “going back to the drawing board and redesigning the entire radio system.”
Bishop denied that charge.
“His [the consultant’s] job is to be as objective and as professional as he can,” he said. “We chose him because of his experience with other municipalities.”
Discussion of the reserve fund also led to disagreements about pursuing grants, after Fuchs suggested that any excess funds be spent on a “robust grant writing team.”
“[T]here’s a lot of federal money that’s out there,” he said. “I don’t think we have enough people in the Town Hall that are writing grants.”
“I was at the hazard mitigation meeting where the zoning enforcement officer...said, ‘I have neither the time nor the expertise to write grants.’ That concerns me,” Fuchs said.
“[T]he former town planner, over the course of her being here—8 or 10 years—cost the town around $800,000 while she wrote close to $3 million in grants,” he continued. “If you can hire someone who brings in many times more than their salary, I think that’s a smart business decision.”
Bishop said he is not a proponent of hiring grant writers.
“My experience...is these individuals come in but they often say to someone else, ‘You do the grant, you do the work,’” he said. “It’s not just the grant money. The work really comes in following up with grants.”
Town employees are writing grants, Bishop maintained.
“This past year, we received slightly over $1 million in grants that had been written by at least six different department heads. That’s roughly 10 percent of our $10 million operating budget.”
At one point in the discussion, Bishop said, “The world has changed in the last five to six years. The money that used to be available from the state for grants has in many ways dried up.”
Fuchs countered that he “wasn’t specifically talking about state grants. There are billions of dollars of federal grants, especially for hazard mitigation like rising sea levels that we need to go after.”
Hazard Mitigation and Failing Jetties
Another question addressed hazard mitigation, stating that, according to NOAA data, “Westbrook has 127 homes worth $48.5 million that are at risk of chronic [flood] inundation as soon as 11 years from now.”
“The question sort of sums up the situation,” Fuchs said. “You talk about 11 years—I think the water’s already here. I’ve been on Seaside Avenue and Old Mill Trail and [have] seen two, three feet of water.”
Deteriorating town jetties, which were built in the 1960s, point to local government “dropping the ball,” Fuchs said. The town has had “sort of a patch-and-pray approach to it where they’ve done small repairs to the jetties over time. But one good storm and the jetties could wash away.”
If that happens, Fuchs said, “not only will it cost $100,000 to replace, but now you have to get the state and federal government involved...I know the town is budgeting $100,000 for these jetties, but [they] should have been replaced a long time ago.”
Bishop, who is a member of the executive committee of the River Valley Council of Governments (River COG), said that all 17 member towns “have hired consultants to develop hazard mitigation plans. Why would they do that? Because you need outside professional help to evaluate it, to raise the roads, where does the water go.”
Bishop expects Westbrook’s consultant to deliver a report in November “that among other things will identify funding,” including grants with a mid-November deadline.
He acknowledged that the jetties are “in great need of repair. Through a very rigorous and thorough budget process last year, [the town] decided that we could not spend up to $1 million at one time.” Instead, a consultant was hired and has requested a “certificate of permission from the state,” which will apply to all the jetties.
“[L]ike so many things in the budget, it’s a question of wants and needs,” Bishop said. “There’s so many things we want, but there’s only so many things we can afford to do...Mr. Fuchs is right, we have set aside $100,000 and in the out years, if you look at the capital plan, we’ve placed $100,000 for each of the following years.”
According to Pytlik, the capital plan for the 2019–’20 fiscal year sets “aside exactly zero dollars for resiliency planning of our town and its infrastructure. Additionally, in 2015, there was $30,000 allocated for the jetties. That cost has now ballooned to $100,000.”
Hall said the $30,000 Pytlik referred to was for maintenance, not replacement.
“As far as the roads, this is a major challenge,” he said. “[W]e raised the roads in Coral Sands in the ’80s and now it’s a problem again...This needs a long-term solution, not a 20-year Band-Aid...It’s getting worse, I acknowledge that, but we really need a long-term plan...And that takes time.”
In a rebuttal, Fuchs said, “I believe I heard the first selectman say that grants are available; a moment ago he said they’d dried up. The second thing he said: Jetties are a want. I think a pickleball court is a want. I think jetties are a need.”
Regionalization and Policing
In response to a question about the “pros and cons of regionalization of services,” the candidates largely expressed their opposition to what they called “forced regionalization.”
Former governor Dannel Malloy “proposed regionalization of schools...and [after] many, many questions and testimonies at the capitol, he withdrew that,” said Bishop.
River COG towns, Bishop said, “are opposed to the idea of the state imposing regionalization on our districts. Why? Because we don’t want the state telling us what to do. There’s often costs that are involved with it. We want to regionalize on a volunteer basis.”
“Regionalization as a concept is neither good nor bad,” said Fuchs. “An example of a regionalized service that we take advantage of now is the residential trooper model.”
Fuchs contrasted Westbrook’s policing model with that of East Haddam, which he said spent $599,000 last year on salaries, as opposed to Westbrook’s $720,000 for the salaries of two state troopers and eight part-time constables.
East Haddam, he said, has “consistent police coverage,” whereas Westbrook, whose constables choose their own shifts, ended up with “not a single constable scheduled to work the evening of the Fourth [of July]. So we’re spending more for our police and getting less.”
The town has resolved to make changes, said Bishop. After one of the two resident troopers was reassigned, the town opted to retain just one resident trooper and hire a full-time constable, possibly hiring a second the following year.
“A full-time trooper costs with all the benefits...about $210,000,” Bishop said, estimating a full-time constable’s salary and benefits at $90,000.
The job for the first full-time constable has been posted, Hall said.
“I’m in favor of hiring another [constable] in the next budget year,” he said. “We’re up to eight part-timers. I think we’re going to get more shifts covered with the same or less money.”
Town Building Maintenance
More contention arose in response to a question regarding the maintenance of town buildings.
A few years ago a consultant examined all the town buildings and provided “a list of priorities,” Hall said, “which we’ve addressed almost all down the line.” An ad hoc committee makes recommendation to the BOS on repairs “and we follow through.”
“I think our buildings are in pretty good shape and...we do have an eye towards maintaining them,” Hall said. “I rely on the people who manage these buildings. If it’s the Town Hall, I rely on the people who work here every day and do the outside work to let us know what’s coming up and what needs to be done.”
Fuchs disagreed, saying he has noticed “a lack of proper maintenance” of town buildings.
The solution, Fuchs contended, was to task an employee with the role of facilities manager, “somebody who can coordinate the [needs] of the school district and the town...I believe the town has not done an inventory of its buildings since 2011.”
Extensive maintenance and repairs have been done at fire department and the Riggio building, and the “library and public works facilities are really brand new,” Bishop said.
As for Town Hall, “We have an annual maintenance budget that covers” small repairs, he said. “[T]he major facility issue we have right now is the roof of this building. There’s over $100,000 been put aside [over] the next three or four years for the replacement of this roof.
“I think we have the people in place who can take care of this,” Bishop added. “I don’t think we need to hire additional staff.
Pytlik disagreed, stating that, according to his experience serving on the Zoning Commission, “approval is usually contingent on maintenance plan. Westbrook holds its property owners to a higher standard than itself. Currently, town maintenance is done on a need basis according to the individual departments. There is very little oversight on a town level.”
Resident Andy Schatz referenced an ongoing “study of the wastewater situation in Westbrook center” and asked the candidates about their visions for change there.
Half the businesses in the Town Center are empty, said Fuchs, “and it’s been like this for a long, long time. A limiting factor is obviously the septic. I think the town’s been too slow to act on this.”
Owners of property on the Town Green, along with town officials and members of the community need to meet to “shape what Westbrook Town Center is going to look like. A few years, ago, UConn did a study...on how to redo the Town Green. So there are solid plans in place for how to proceed with that.”
“Yes, the issue of sewers is one issue, but let me mention something else,” Bishop said. “Across the country, malls are closing down. The problem is the retail issue...All you have to do is think about Amazon.”
Westbrook Outlets is dealing with these issues, he said.
“I think our Town Center needs to be upgraded, whether we want to go through another referendum as we did over 15 years ago in this town [as to whether to install sewers],” Bishop said. “It was resoundingly defeated, [but that] doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it again.
“But there’s enormous cost involved in putting sewers in. I’m not against it; I’m certainly for putting in everything we can to promote more businesses in the Town Center,” said Bishop.
Pytlik noted that “even if the town would like to put in a sewer system, we do not have a waterway that we are allowed to discharge this water into.
“[W]e all know that the biggest roadblock is the cost,” he added.
“What I hear from people in town is keep our tax bills pretty stable,” said Hall. “Well, if you’re going to put a lot of money into a septic system or a sewer, that’s not going to keep your tax bill stable.”
In regard to the outlet mall, Fuchs warned that it has “45 percent vacancy. Last year they came close to $700,000 in property taxes.”
“I feel that the outlet center is on the verge of bankruptcy,” he said. He has heard that the outlet may “sell the property to Middlesex Hospital. If that happened, it would take that property completely off the tax rolls.
“The solution to the outlet center is not to keep it as retail but...to transfer it from a place where you buy things to a place where you do things...I think that’s going to be a top priority. I don’t want to see that taxpayer be lost.”
The last audience question came from Rick Newberg, who pressed Fuchs on taxes, claiming that “[y]ou’re talking about sewers and all those expenses here. I’m getting forced out of the state.”
Fuchs had not proposed installing sewers.
“I’m not planning on raising taxes and as far as taxes being raised, my mother lives in town,” Fuchs responded. “She’s been here 20 years...Since the first selectman has taken office, her property taxes have gone up by over 50 percent and her property value has gone down. So I don’t think this is necessarily a Democratic versus Republican issue.
“I’m looking to make the town work smarter and promote business,” he said.
Bishop responded that taxes have “not gone up more than other towns. In fact, I think it can be argued in some cases they’ve maintained at good levels. Have they gone up? People compare us to Old Saybrook all the time. But...[t]hey have more businesses...We have four major businesses in town that carry most of the business tax: The Lee Company, Water’s Edge, the outlets—I know they’re having some difficulty—and the marina.”
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