As a candidate for Town Council in the 9th District, I expect to be asked a common question: How will I reduce taxes in Stratford?
The simple answer is: I won’t vote for budgets that raise taxes; support bonding we can’t afford; or give unlimited license to free-spending politicians.
However, it’s not that simple. The words “accountability” and “fiscal responsibility” are tossed around in campaigns, and I agree that oversight is a big part of the equation. But it doesn’t address the actual plan to reduce taxes; what voters want to see, hear and examine.
I don’t think we can get to the planning until bigger issues are addressed, as higher taxes are merely symptomatic of long-term structural and systemic inefficiency. The road to mitigate rising taxes begins with a strong economic development, business growth and marketing strategy designed to attract and engage commercial enterprises that can contribute to the grand list.
Let's start by hiring an experienced Economic Development Director. There was strong advocacy for this position, from a variety of stakeholders, and it once appeared in Mayor Harkins' budget. But recruitment efforts were stalled and the position disappeared as a line item last year. In fact, Mayor Harkins has said that he would proactively pursue economic development out of his office.
But another new pizza place or deli will only fill our bellies and not our wallets. There seems to be a lack of a larger vision. Economic growth and re-development is being approached here as a random filling of spaces, rather than a strategic plan to support Stratford's future.
This passivity seems to have infected Stratford's leadership. The prime example is the Army Engine Plant, where we have allowed ourselves to become victims of the Army, waiting for them to try every imaginable scenario with a one-dimensional benefit instead of us proactively engaging higher levels of Connecticut leadership who can influence better solutions. The Army’s reluctance to subdivide the property, which would enable Stratford to sell some less toxic parcels more quickly, further underscores our lack of ability to influence the Army and their lack of regard for the interests of Stratford.
Dogstar Studios was touted as the catalyst for spurring a whole new growth industry in Stratford, but this project languishes too. A visionary leader who believed that the film industry would leverage Stratford's proximity to New York, Boston, New Haven, I-95, airport, railroad, beach and forest film settings, and quaint New England locale would be busy courting the ecosystem to support the burgeoning growth.
We shouldn't be waiting to see what businesses we attract; we need leadership who has a strategic vision for the kind of town Stratford can be, and which industries will yield the most growth, jobs, opportunities and contributions to the tax base. And then put together the right plan with the right team to go get them.
So, how I will help reduce taxes in Stratford? I will work toward a long-term solution that will help stabilize property taxes now and ensure benefits for Stratford's future. I'd start by applying the same principles to the municipal budget that many of us have had to do during these last few years: eliminate waste, inefficiency and unnecessary spending.
It would require a line item audit of the budget, sometimes making deep cuts -- not at the expense of town services -- but often requiring just some skillful, surgical precision. (Has anyone seen how much each department spends on printing alone??) Some of the lightning rod expenses, as examples:
The Board of Education budget holds the town hostage every year, as health insurance and salaries rise. Has there been a health service provider review, comparison or even an exploration of self-funding?
The Town Attorney's office has consistently drawn attention as a bloated expense, yet there are lower cost alternatives for those services. What's the rationale for maintaining this system rather than seeking savings?
A savings opportunity was lost when Fire Department contracts were re-negotiated without controls to reduce pensions and diminish the unbalanced burden placed on taxpayers. Additionally, as long as the FD remains understaffed, overtime will continue skyrocketing. Democrats have advocated to significantly reduce the $2 million overtime by hiring the minimum number of staff and scheduling annual tests to maintain a qualified list of candidates. Was that plan or a viable alternative even considered?
Those are just a few ideas. My main focus will be to end the out-of-control spending where taxpayers are the last stop, and to promote “honesty taxation” so you always know where your money goes before we ask for more.
I won't pretend to have all the answers so I invite your ideas and thoughts. You can share them with me on my Facebook page. As Peter Drucker said, "The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask."