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Among the many things said at a mayoral debate last week was the assertion by one candidate – the incumbent – that “it’s a great time to be in Stratford.”
“We’re kickin’ it,” said Mayor John A. Harkins, in specific reference to economic development.
Throughout the debate, Harkins cited progress on long-standing town issues – the underfunded pension obligation for municipal workers, lagging economic development – as evidence that Stratford is on track.
The other candidates did not see it that way.
“We’ve seen four years in a row of tax increase after tax increase,” Democratic candidate Joe Paul, a retired bank executive, said.
“Our senior citizens can’t afford to live here,” said petitioning candidate Ken Bruno.
Under his administration, the mayor said the town approved bonding in the amount of $163 million to fund the woefully underfunded pension obligation for town workers.
A neglected pension fund can weaken a town’s bond rating, which threatens future borrowing needed for big projects.
“The pension was underfunded – we solved that,” Harkins said.
The mayor added that future hires are now going into 401(k)-type retirement plans. All told, the town will save $80 million over the next 20 years, the Republican said.
Paul disagreed, arguing that the only parties who benefit from borrowing are bond commissions.
Harkins countered, telling Paul flatly, “You don’t understand the POB (pension obligation bond).” The mayor said rates are low so it’s an appropriate time for borrowing.
“Taxpayers have a $200 million loan because we made promises we couldn’t keep,” Paul said. “There’s something wrong with (a town employee) retiring making double their base pay with their pension.”
George Mulligan, a second petitioning candidate, offered some statistics. He cited a retired police captain whose highest base pay was $84,000 but who now, under his pension, collects $134,000 annually. Over 30 years, that’s a hearty $4 million, he said.
“How can you possibly have a balanced budget when this is the case?” queried Mulligan, who said, if elected, he’d try to negotiate pension benefits with police, fire and other town employees.
“The town is living on a credit card,” added Bruno.