Election 2019: Selectmen candidates talk taxes, development

Dipping in and out of a smorgasbord of issues — taxes, schools, development, open space — and sharing the personal commitments that motivate them, candidates for Ridgefield’s Board of Selectmen took questions and outlined positions at the League of Women Voters debate.

A crowd of about 170 listened to the seven candidates — including the two seeking the first selectman’s office — Tuesday night, Oct.1, in the Ridgefield library’s program room. Some people took advantage of the League’s invitation to submit questions on note cards.

What are the best and worst things that have happened in Ridgefield over the last 20 years?

“The best decision was electing Rudy, and the worst decision was re-electing him,” quipped Dick Moccia, Democratic First Selectman Rudy Marconi’s Republican challenger. Moccia’s response prompted a few light boos from the audience.

Moccia quickly turned to his ‘bests’ list which included the town’s public safety record, passage of the $90-million school bundle and the educational level of the schools, and the town’s many arts and cultural organizations.

“We want to keep that,” he said.

“So many good things have been happening in Ridgefield,” Moccia said.

“Worst things?” Marconi said. “We’ve lost some really wonderful people — people like Jeanne Timpanelli, and others.” They volunteered and contributed so much to the town, he said.

The best for the first selectman?

“The bundle, in 2000. Bennett’s Pond, almost 500 acres of open space. McKeon Farm, almost 40 acres of open space,” Marconi said.

“Public safety,” he added, “You all know how Ridgefield is number one, and we’re going to keep it that way.”

Cell tower and 8-30g

Sean Connelly, a finance board member and Democratic Board of Selectman candidate, mentioned that public safety had attracted his family to town, along with high quality schools and the new library.

“It is amazing,” he said.

“One of the worst things — not really in our community — 8-30g,” he said, referring to the state law which allows multifamily developers to circumvent zoning regulations if 30% of living units meet state affordability guidelines.

Republican Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark kept her response focused on the time she’s spent serving on the board.

“In my time on the board, eight years, one of the best things was purchasing Schlumberger — 45 acres, center of town,” she said.

According to Kozlark, voting to buy the property allowed voters to control growth in the center of town.

She said the worst part about town was the scuttling of plans for a cell tower to be built — the tower went up on private land, and the town missed out on $100,000 a year in revenue.

‘Hubs of the community’

“When I think of it,” said Joe Savino, a Police Commission member and Republican candidate for Board of Selectmen, “I think special people, special town.”

He singled out one place.

“The Prospector Theater: Wow! What the Jensens have built there.”

He said he goes to The Prospector every chance he gets.

“I think so highly of what they’re doing,” he said.

Savino also mentioned the renovated library with all its programs.

“The library’s one of the hubs of the community,” he said.

And the worst?

“We’ve had so many friends and neighbors move out of Ridgefield because of affordability,” Savino said.

What motivates his candidacy “is to make it more affordable,” Savino said.

Praise for volunteers

Selectwoman Barbara Manners, a Democratic incumbent, leaned into her long association with Marconi.

“I’ve been on the board the entire 20 years with Rudy,” she said. She later called it’s “one of the great privileges of my life.”

She added, “I’d like to say to Mr. Moccia: Don’t count on the arts and culture always being here.”

All those organizations are run by volunteers.

“It’s a big commitment,” she said. “... To help Allison keep the Playhouse alive, ACT…”

As she ran through a list of cultural and arts groups someone in the audience yelled out “the concerts in the park” — the CHIRP events Manners organizes.

“The concerts in the park,” she said, “all your donations.”

Selectman Bob Hebert, a Republican incumbent, said he’d been in Ridgefield 38 years.

“This is a great place to live,” Hebert said. “I raised three kids here.

“It’s a vibrant town. As a result of our success, we face challenges,” Hebert said.

In his four years on the board, he said, one of the successes had been the open public process that led to the purchase and reuse of the Schlumberger site.

“We appointed the nine-member citizens committee,” he said.

Distinguishing traits?

Candidates were asked what sets them apart from the others.

“Twenty years of experience,” said Marconi. “Understanding the community. Growing up, riding my bicycle here. Looking at the downtown and seeing we’ve been able to keep it …

“I have a vision,” Marconi said, “a vision for the future that entails the past.”

Moccia said, “What I bring to the table for the first time in eight years is an opponent [to Rudy]!”

Many people know his political record includes four terms as mayor of Norwalk, Moccia said, but he’d also served that city in many other capacities — from the Common Council to the Fair Rent Commission and Fire Commission.

In Ridgefield, he’s served on the Parking Authority and is currently on the Board of Finance.

“I also have a commitment to people,” Moccia said.

He’s worked for the homeless, for single mothers, and has worked so hard on Liberation House, for people getting clean from alcohol and drug addictions, that the facility’s community room had been named after him.

“I have a commitment to people,” Moccia said, “and I believe in people.”

Connelly began by praising the town’s seniors, who are so active and contribute so much.

“There’s a lot of different segments to this community,” Connelly said. And he represents a different demographic.

“There’s no one else running for this board that has kids in the school system,” he said.

His daughter is an RHS junior, and his son is in eighth grade — which has broadened his outlook as a finance board member.

“It’s a different perspective I’ve been able to bring,” Connelly said.

Kozlark said she felt she stood out for her methodical preparation for board meetings, researching issues.

“I like to know what the history was,” she said.

She also strives to be approachable “so we can work with each side” on complicated issues.

“I’m unique on the Board of Selectmen,” Kozlark added, “because I was on the Board of Education for 10 years.”

Savino touted his decades of business experience, and his 29 years living in Ridgefield and doing public service — on the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Board of Finance, a previous stint on the Board of Selectmen, and his current work on the Police Commission.

“Community service is part of everything I do,” Savinio said.

Manners spoke of her community projects.

“Some people say I’m relentless when I have an idea I think is a good one,” Manners said. “That was the Playhouse. That was CHIRP. That was the lights for the dog park.”

She hopes to do more, she said.

Hebert said he has 40 years of experience in banking, finance and real estate.

“I’m a business person,” he said. “...What I bring that’s unique is problem-solving.”

He’d been chairman of the town Housing Authority and helped it dig out of a financial hole it had previously gotten into.

“I bring a positive vision for our future that’s fact-based,” Hebert said.

Taxes, seniors

Another question asked candidates what they’d do to hold taxes down for people on fixed incomes, and if they’d support a tax break for homes where no school children live.

Connelly said financial struggles weren’t limited to one age group.

“It’s not just senior citizens,” he said.

The problem with giving tax breaks to one segment of the population is that another group has to pick up the cost, Connelly said.

“It’s kind of like a water balloon,” he said — squeeze in one area and it expands in another.

It’s a vital issue, Kozlark agreed.

“Alleviating the tax burden on our citizens was the mantra of the Board of Selectmen this past budget season,” she said. “We had a zero tax increase. We were very proud of that — it took the whole five of us to do it.”

Savino said the town’s tax base should be increased.

“We need to get our grand list growing,” Savino said.

“I see a great product to sell — the Town of Ridgefield,” he said. “I see a great resource — the Economic Development Commission — that’s underutilized.”

He supported raising the town’s property tax break for all taxpayers over 65.

“It’s at $1,048 and I think we could phase-in an increase.”

Manners said the board had recently broadened its means-tested tax deferment program, which allows hard-pressed seniors to put off paying taxes year after year and remain in their homes — it works something like a reverse mortgage, she said.

“We put a lien on your property. The lien doesn’t mature until the house is sold,” she said.

The program is available only to senior taxpayers under a certain income level, and the board just raised the cut-off from $55,000 to $65,000. The program “is a huge benefit to seniors,” Manners said.

Hebert referenced Kozlark’s description of the board collaborating to avoid a tax increase.

“I will agree with Maureen,” Hebert said. “That was a mantra for us in budget season.”

He also agreed with Savino.

“We do need to increase the grand list,” he said.

“I’d be careful phasing in additional tax reductions,” he said. “You have to find the money somewhere.”

Moccia said people also need relief from the 60% sewer increase.

“I’m not sure reverse mortgages are the answer,” he said, referencing Manners’ comments. “Many people are not knowing what they’re getting into.”

He said the town should seek “more state and federal grants, that will help stabilize the tax bill.”

The town had a tax credit of about $1,100 — the $1,048 tax break all seniors are entitled to. And there’s the “tax deferment” program, that the board had lifted the income limit on — raising the income limit from up to $55,000 to $65,000.

And, yes, tax breaks result in other taxpayers paying more.

The sewer increase comes as user fees on a state-mandated clean water project, Marconi said — and agreed it’s too high.

“No matter what we do, there’s a cost associated with that,” Marconi said.

He said the town could do another senior housing project on town land by the dog park.

But he was skeptical of Moccia’s talk of other state and federal grants to holding down local costs.

“Other grants? There’s no money available,” Marconi said. “Hartford looks at us as Rich-field.”