At Odds Over Education Funding, Council Candidates Focus on Grand List
NEWINGTON - A cross party consensus regarding a need for economic development-exacerbated by the prospect of losing $15 million in municipal aid in the absence of a state budget-highlighted introductions from Democratic and Republican Mayoral and Town Council candidates last Thursday night in Town Hall.

       The Democrats introduced Mayoral nominee Terry Borjeson-the former Majority Leader-along with incumbents Carol Anest, Dianne Casasanta Serra, former Town Hall Committee Chair Chris Miner, and newcomer Nicholas Arace.

       On the Republican slate, incumbent Roy Zartarian looks to hold the Mayor’s seat, while Deputy Mayor Dave Nagel, Majority Leader Beth DelBuono and Councilors Tim Manke, and Gail Budrekjo are joined by Mike Camillo, a TPZ commissioner and longtime local business owner.

       The NCTV event-hosted by Steve Parker-began Wednesday night with the Board candidates from both slates. Though whether the Board required more than the 0.3 percent budget increase approved by the Republican Majority to open the district’s $2 million STEM academy has been a subject of debate since the Spring, one thing the two sides agree on is that, as Borjeson has said, the pool of money needs to get larger to avoid the conflicts over how to spend limited resources.

       “This town needs to grow,” Serra said. “We need to raise our tax base. We need to bring businesses in to this town.”

       The Grand List took a dip last year, when the former Hartford Hospital building-a top revenue generator-changed occupants, taking it off the tax rolls.

       Candidates from both sides emphasized “smart” development that “fits Newington’s character”-of particular importance when it comes to capitalizing on the CT Fastrak station areas of Cedar Street/Fenn Road and Newington Junction. The former is home to the National Welding site-a parcel the town has been looking to redevelop for quite some time-and the junction presents opportunities to revitalize an old manufacturing hub, candidates said.

       “Our stale tax base is only a result of no economic development, which is happening statewide and countrywide,” Miner said.

       Arace said that the town could capitalize on a rail line project-anticipated for coming years-in its CT FasTrak areas by taking that into consideration when crafting its development guidelines.

       Borjeson opened his comments by stating his motivations to run-a combination of concerns that included the level of education funding, a “crumbling infrastructure”, and a stagnant Grand List-as well as issuing a debate challenge to Zartarian. Borjeson said that he had intended to discuss the schools, development/business, the state of town infrastructure, senior related issues, and other topics in a series of five debates-a proposal that was reportedly declined by Republican Town Committee Chair Domenic Pane.

       “I find that to be a problem because we face issues in this town that need to be discussed,” Borjeson said.

       In his own statement, Zartarian said that Borjeson “derailed” the process by sending the proposal letter to “the media”-including The Rare Reminder. The letter-emailed by the campaign a few weeks ago for reference-was printed by this paper as a Letter to the Editor.

       The discussion played out over social media in subsequent days, with a number of residents calling on the two sides to agree to at least one debate.

       When reached by email, Pane confirmed that he had rejected Borjeson’s initial proposal, calling it “ridiculous” because it would have had to take place within seven weeks prior to the election.

       “That’s a campaign, not a debate,” he wrote. “Let’s be real-the presidential candidates only had three.”

       Pane said that he had been in talks with Democratic Town Committee Chair John Kelly, as well as personnel from NCTV “to see what could be done”. He and Borjeson reportedly encountered one another at Newington’s Waterfall Festival, discussing it further, but the two have different recollections as to the tone of their conversation.

       Pane accused Borjeson of “making threatening comments”-a claim Borjeson vehemently denied.

       “At no point in time did I threaten him,” Borjeson said over the phone. “He’s an outright liar.”

       Pane later clarified, stating that although Borjeson did not threaten him “personally”, he had taken exception to him stating that he would be sending white papers to the media in coming weeks to spell out his positions on the issues he was hoping to discuss during a debate.

       When reached Tuesday morning, Zartarian was doubtful as to whether even one debate-as has been the tradition in Mayoral races-will be scheduled with less than a month before Election Day.

       “I think the logistics are working against it at this point,” he said.

       Regardless of how the debate discussion plays out, candidates had a chance to sound off on everything from spending to the state of the town’s infrastructure during each of their five minute time allotments.

       Republicans pointed to their budgeting over the past two years-controversial, due mostly to the low school side increases, but only yielding a 0.79 Mill inflation nevertheless.

       “It’s time for all of us to accept that our revenue situation is no longer what it once was,” Zartarian said in his comments.

       “We had foresight to make difficult choices and make your taxes manageable,” Budrejko said.

       But Borjeson referred to the savings as “artificial”, pointing to the fact that the town has gone into the reserve fund-for about $2 million-last year to keep the budget balanced. That, combined with the use of nonrecurring funds for yearly costs on the school side, and the town as a whole is looking at close to $4 million deficits in the out years-before the impact of the state aid cut is factored in, he said.

       “God knows what happens next year,” Borjeson said.

       But the town has historically taken from the reserve fund to help with the operating budget, Zartarian said. The Republicans did it their first term as well, to the tune of $2.5 million-it was a revaluation year-and the previous Democratic Majority used $2.2 million in 2015/2016, and $2.4 million in 2014/2015, according to past budget documents.

       The difference then, was that the reserve fund balance-above the current 11 percent during their time in the Majority-was growing, said former Mayor Steve Woods. Between 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, the balance went from 11.9 percent to 12.4 percent, according to budget documents. A town typically needs to maintain a reserve balance of 10 percent of its budget to be considered financially healthy for bonding.

       “Our fund balance allowed us to do it,” Woods said over the phone. “I don’t believe it allows us to do it anymore.”

       A staple of Zartarian’s campaign since the first Republican meet and greet has been finding more shared service opportunities in order to achieve cost consolidation-a point his team members reiterated Thursday night.

       “Town government must get creative in how money is spent,” Manke said. “There can be no more sacred cows. The old formula of ever increasing taxes for ever increasing spending can no longer work.”

       But failing to invest in tax base catalysts-such as a robust education system-will end up creating additional costs in the long run, Democrats have countered. Over $2 million has already been spent on the high school STEM academy, and the district risks incurring cost escalations in magnet school tuition if students progressing out of its middle school feeder programs have nowhere else to continue related studies, they have said.

       “This year’s election will determine the future of our town,” Anest said. “Do you want to invest in our infrastructure and schools, or do you want to stay stagnant?”

       Atop every candidates priority list on the infrastructure side is the Town Hall project-a bipartisan plan going to referendum on Election Day-and both Minor and Nagel have proposed a town wide building audit in order to assess all related needs, which, over the years, have come to include renovations to the Blue Ribbon Award winning Anna Reynolds Elementary School, the Library, and Church Hill Park.