CBA hosts panel discussion with candidates

By Merja H. Lehtinen
Colchester - posted Tue., Oct. 22, 2013
CBA hosts panel discussion with candidates

The Fire House  was packed  with more than 125 business people at the Colchester Business Association  Dinner on Oct. 8. A “Meet the Candidates” networking event took place before the dinner. 

Incumbent First Selectman Gregg Schuster and his two challengers, selectman James Ford and former first selectman Linda Hodge, participated in a panel discussion. Each voiced a vision for Colchester while acknowledging growing homeowner and business discontent with rising taxes. Both Ford and Hodge are registered Democrats, but Hodge is running on the Colchester Independent Party ticket.

The elephant in the room was the failed $57 million bonding package for projects some people wanted  and others feared would add to  rising taxes in a still uncertain economy. There is a growing divide in town between those who can afford to pay rising taxes and those who can’t.   

“The federal government can shut down, but cities and towns cannot by law,” said Schuster. “We  send out ambulances, police, fire trucks and address issues when an emergency occurs.”

Candidates for other boards were also  present. Missing were candidates for the Board of Education, which was meeting at the same time, reportedly  to address alternatives in light  of the defeated plan  to borrow $57 million  to renovate the middle school for mixed use. The plan called  for school renovations including new administrative offices, social services, a combined community-youth center,  and senior center at a three-story structure on the  middle school campus.

That  came as  “no surprise”  to  candidates, some said Tuesday night, as they heard from voters while  knocking on doors;   taxes are the key issue. Some want to move forward despite the failed vote. Ford is calling for a tri-board meeting to address how to move forward.

It was a congenial crowd of old-time friends and business owners, including Tri Town Foods owner Rick Sharr, former state representative and attorney  Joe Brodeur,  and  former First Selectman Jenny Contois, now Congressman Joe Courtney’s district director. The “debate” was  more a panel discussion, cordial, measured,  and focused on general visions of town as posed by moderated  questions from the audience.
      Dan Eberle of Wells Fargo, current president of CBA, and CBA board member Gregg Barden of Reminder Media, emceed the evening.     
Schuster said he sees the Westchester section as an agribusiness zone of  houses, farms,  and vineyards, which likely will not change much, and the south side of Route 2 as a commercial shopping zone. He emphasized  the need for road and school repairs to go forward,  while a new  senior/community center may be built nearer town hall on available land. Ford sees Colchester “where tradition meets tomorrow,”  as a shopping center where area towns’ residents visit for destination shopping to  frequent stores and new plazas. Hodge envisions light industrial for new growth and enabling current businesses to thrive in both historic village centers of town, with restaurants and shopping accessible to walkers in the village districts. 

Questions posed to the candidates included the impact of change on the town’s future and economic development. Audience members who submitted written questions also added the big question about the impact on taxes. Schuster said it was important “to celebrate why Colchester is so great.”  In recent weeks,  a new business opened on the south side of Route 2 on Lake Hayward Road on land that was once a family farm. New state fleet maintenance operations at the Route 85-Lake Hayward Road Ext. four corners  are  nearing completion. He also noted that Colchester was named the 8th Best Place to live in America for a town its size for clean air and open space.  

Hodge said that new businesses are unlikely to move to a town where the mill rate is rising rapidly and that it needs to be stabilized. She said she cannot promise a tax decrease. She called for more citizen input and emphasized that town residents are the town’s greatest resources. She said she wants to invest in publicizing  existing businesses as well as recruiting new ones for existing footprints.  Both Schuster and Ford concurred that mill rate stability is key to  attracting future businesses to town.  Schuster stood firmly on his track record of recent growth, while Ford sees Colchester’s future as a  shopping center for surrounding towns.  
Each of the three candidates has practical experience on the Board of Selectmen and politics as well as extensive academic credentials. Schuster, a former project manager with Travelers,  holds an advanced degree in business management, Ford, an expert in traffic engineering and municipal development,  holds degrees  in civil engineering and  is licensed in seven states, and Hodge holds advanced degrees  in public policy and research,  as well as  human resources  certifications. 

Other candidates present at the event included several running for the Board of Selectmen.  Tearice Peters, a wife and stay-at-home mom, and private investor, leads a group of environmentally concerned citizens. She believes  leaders have not heard the townspeople clearly in recent resounding votes.   Evan A. Evans, formerly with the U.S. Army and a finance professional,  is a newcomer to politics.   Rosemary Coyle, retired teacher, past president of CEA, and long-time board member believes in “being prepared and being ready to ask the tough questions.”  Denise Mizla, Michael Caplet  and Stan Soby,  are also competing  for  seats on the Board of Selectmen. Former Registrar Mizla has worked quietly behind the scenes to keep the mill rate stable. She and her husband own a business, raised their children in town,  and traveled  internationally for years;  she is a lifelong Colchester resident. Mike Caplet, who worked for former First Selectman Jenny Contois and later Gov. Dannel Malloy, now works in Emergency Preparedness for  Homeland Security in Colchester. He said he is running for the sake of his 15-month old daughter. Soby, another former First Selectman, works with the disabled at a leading nonprofit. In the past,  he has supported new development along Route 2 and Lake Hayward Road Extension as well. 

Members of the public, not just CBA members and candidates,  were invited to attend the Oct. 8 event.  Colchester, a town of about 5,400 households, has an aging population of people who retired more than 20 years ago, including many on fixed incomes that are very small,  working couples with children who are at the height of their earning power, and about 3,000 children under age 18.  On average, it appears as though everyone can afford the taxes, but the income disparities make it obvious some cannot afford to pay more than half if not all their income in property tax, while for others even $9,000 a year in taxes are a “bargain” if they have two children in school  

      One couple,   who chose not to have their names in print,  said their main interest was “each candidate’s position on taxes.” The couple said they have  lived in town for about two decades and run a local business; they would be forced to move from their home if taxes stay as high as they are, much less keep rising.

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