Marconi, Moccia square off at League debate
From frustrations with the state’s 8-30g law paving the way for multifamily projects to differing takes on sewer taxes, truck traffic and growth, Ridgefield first selectman candidates — Democratic incumbent Rudy Marconi and Republican challenger Dick Moccia — hit a laundry list of issues while fielding complex questions at the League of Women Voters’ debate.
The tone was friendly but spirited, with lighthearted pokes exchanged by the candidates before a nearly full house in the library’s program room Tuesday night, Oct. 1.
“Twenty years, Rudy — last century, you were first elected,” Moccia teased.
“And I’m younger than you,” Marconi replied.
“But I’m wiser,” Moccia retorted.
Marconi’s hand tipped back and forth in a teeter-totter gesture — maybe, maybe not. One question — people submitted questions on the note cards — asked how Ridgefield could “preserve small town feel, while allowing growth and economic development.”
Moccia said First Selectman Marconi — who is head of COST, the Council of Small Towns — should do more to lobby state officials on issues such as 8-30g, the state law, which allows developers to ignore zoning rules if 30 percent of their housing units meet state affordability guidelines.
“[COST] should be lobbying to help relieve the pressure these laws place on the small towns,” Moccia said.
Then he spoke of truck traffic, which he said makes Main Street less attractive to businesses.
“The first selectman should be doing more with the bully pulpit with the state of Connecticut, to keep these trucks off our roads,” Moccia said.
Moccia pointed to Hartford’s political leanings.
“It’s a Democratic leadership. Rudy is a Democrat,” Moccia said. “I’d hope he could do more.”
“Economic development is a critical issue,” Marconi said. “Many people have said we need more commercial development.”
He recalled when Boehringer Ingelheim contemplated leaving town in 2007.
“I worked hard to keep them here,” Marconi said.
“The result was a $500 million expansion that’ll send their taxes from $6 million a year to about $10 million a year.”
He poked back at some Moccia jabs.
“Our Main Street was said by Eleanor Roosevelt to be the most beautiful main street in the country,” Marconi said. “I think it still is.”
“Yes, it’s a beautiful Main Street,” Moccia said later. “But is it going to stay that way? It might not, unless we do something to stop people from using our Main Street as a cut-through.”
Another question concerned encroaching commercial development.
Marconi later returned another of Moccia’s criticisms.
“My opponent said ‘the bully pulpit’ — I’m not a bully,” Marconi said. “I want to work cooperatively with everyone.”
Moccia pounced on 8-30g again, saying town leaders hadn’t fought aggressively enough against the state law.
“There are things that can be done,” Moccia said. “What’s happening in Bridgeport and Norwalk and Danbury is not appropriate to Ridgefield.”
“The question was about commercial development,” Marconi said. “8-30g is residential development.”
He agreed that controlling growth was “one of the issues confronting our community.”
The candidates were asked their top priorities for the next two years.
“It’s a four-year term,” Marconi noted, adding, “Time goes by quickly, we have a lot that’s on the horizon.”
He said the “2021 project” to improve Route 35 and Main Street — making sure the state’s improvements are to Ridgefielders’ liking — was important.
He’d been working with the state “to make sure a minimum of trees are cut — three at most,” Marconi said.
“Widening will not take place,” he said, with repaving contained within the existing roadbed. “It’ll be curb to curb.”
The “Branchville TOD” development project was another priority, and Marconi also spoke of efforts to contain the effects of 8-30g.
“We had a moratorium,” he said.
But when the four-year ban on 8-30 projects was lifted by the state, the pressure for multifamily development returned.
“There was a recession, pent up demand,” Marconi said.
Moccia offered some other priorities.
“Do a better job with road maintenance,” he said.
“We have to look at how we’re maintaining our schools,” Moccia added.
He described a system of “click-fixes” other towns use, allowing citizens to point out problems and then “get a work order number” that allows them to follow the repairs.
“Wilton, they had 1,600 uses of their click-fixes,” he said. “We have to have better customer service when people have complaints.”
Moccia said the town should “look outside for professional grant writers” to get state and federal money for projects and help “hold taxes down.”
“Do a better job on roads,” Moccia said.
”There are people driving over potholes,” he said, “waiting for a road to break out.”
Taking advantage of the opportunity to give a brief rebuttal, Marconi said it was easy to list problems, not so simple to fix them all.
“It costs money,” he said.
His administration had worked hard to hold down costs last year.
“We eliminated seven positions,” Marconi said.
The result was a zero tax increase budget.
Moccia said later there might have been a zero tax increase, but some people were being hit with a 60% increase in sewer fees.
“I don’t like it,” Marconi said of the sewer increase. He noted that he and his wife paid the sewer higher fees, and corrected Moccia’s earlier mention of sewer treatment capacity increase.
“There’s no capacity increase in the design,” Marconi said.
Holding the sewer treatment capacity where it was, while upgrading treatment quality, he said, showed town leaders’ responding to citizen feedback.
“We listened to the people of Ridgefield.”
Marconi explained that while there is a flat fee for each sewer use unit, some properties were assigned more than one use unit.
“Water use is taken into consideration,” he said.
But he said the town had no choice but to follow through on the $48 million sewer renovation plan — approved by voters, he noted — or face the state in court, end up paying fines, and lose $11 million in anticipated grants.
“It’s a mandated issue we have to address,” Marconi said. “...It is a lot of money. I understand that.”
Moccia kept asking why the $11 million grant hadn’t been released.
As mayor of Norwalk, he said, he’d overseen a $65 million sewer plant project. There’d been a $250 fee, and in 14 years since it had gone up an average of $7 a year, and was now about $350.
Ridgefield might use “some kind of a flat fee combined with a usage fee” — the 60% sewer fee increase had to be addressed.
“If you don’t start looking, it isn’t going to happen,” Moccia said.
“It’s not going to be an easy process. The longest journey starts with the first step.”