Sterling volunteers keep town on track

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Sterling - posted Mon., Jul. 8, 2013

Independence Day was celebrated with fireworks, parades and patriotic music all across the nation last weekend. In Sterling, Board of Finance members Link Cooper and Ruta Parker observed it in low-key fashion. Cooper and his wife invited their sisters for an air-conditioned visit and lunch. Parker and her husband stayed home because of the heat. Yet both of them live Independence Day regularly as members of the town's finance commission.  They provide representation on matters of huge consequence for their fellow residents. And they do it month in and month out, without pay.

For Republican Cooper, it's a civic responsibility he feels suited to. He grew up with a minister father who was engaged in town politics. “Service was key in my family,” he said. “I picked up the key from that.” He admits enjoying, at least for the most part, the eight hours a month that he serves on the Board of Finance. Part of the reason is the civility of Sterling town politics, he said. 

Soon after he moved to Sterling in the early '90s, he went to the polls to wait for election results. He could see members of each party there, but there was no friction. He made a comment to another resident about how unusual that was. “He said, 'This is Sterling. After we count the votes, we forget about what party we belong to.' That was his analysis,” Cooper said. “It's not 100-percent true, but it's more true than not.”

First Selectman Russell Gray agreed. “Sterling is unlike a lot of other small towns,” he said. “The Democrats and Republicans get along well. They work together. There's no bickering or back-biting. That's important in a small town.”

“I have to agree with the first selectman,” Parker said. The FOB member has been on the Democratic Town Committee for 15 years and on the BOF for 13 years. “We do all work together for the town,” she said. “The only time it becomes partisan is in an election. We put up someone. They put up someone. People vote and whoever gets in, gets in. That's fine. We really haven't had any terrible squabbles. There's no point in it.”

Rising taxes are the biggest issue for residents, both say. It's an issue that comes up every year when budgets are set and voted on in the spring. Every year there are complaints about taxes being too high.

“In a small town like this, it's a very valid question,” Cooper said. He's heard the question raised at meetings and budget hearings. “You don't get garbage pick-up, police protection of any kind, or some of the things towns normally provide. We can't afford it, and yet we have to operate. It's a very difficult situation. We have this ever-increasing cost in schools and government, and yet there's very little industry. We can't pick up a lot of money in taxes from industry, so most comes from the taxpayers. They are fed up and I don't blame them, because they can't see what they are getting for their money.”

The pressure to keep taxes down is appropriate, said Parker. But there are things the town has to pay for. There are state and federal mandates. Roads need to be plowed in the winter and maintained on a regular basis. Residents need to get rid of waste and recyclables. Vehicle maintenance, employee salaries and benefits, and a host of issues demand dollars. And costs for most things rise each year. Because property values dropped with the revaluation, the town's grand list went down. And because the grand list went down, the mil rate went up in order to maintain the level of services the town provided.

For Cooper and Parker, meeting the needs of the town and the school gets more difficult with each year as the state struggles to rein in its budget. “We've got ourselves in a position in the state where we can't afford to live the way we've been living,” Cooper said. “I don't care about politics. When the cuts are made, the towns feel it. And when the towns feel it, it goes back to the taxpayers to cough up that much more.”

Both Cooper and Parker would like to see more public participation at town meetings during the year. It would give people a better idea of the issues the boards face and how board members have to figure out ways to pays for what is essential. Lack of information and lack of involvement cloud the issues.

“People expect the town to do certain things, but they are reluctant to step forward,” Parker said. “If I had my druthers, I'd rather not. I mean it's nice to sit back and relax. But volunteers are in short supply.”

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