The need for a town Public Works building was discussed at length at Wednesday night’s Selectman’s debate between Republican incumbent Jamie Cosgrove and Democratic contender Lynda Mollow, the first they have held this campaign season.
The one-hour debate, cordial in tone, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV )of the East Shore and aired on Branford Community TV. Click here to listen to the debate. .
Of the major projects under consideration in Branford over the past several years, two are underway – the Walsh Intermediate School renovation and the creation of the Community House-Senior Center. A third is a permanent building for the Public Works Department, which has been in temporary, less-than-adequate quarters on Route 139 since 2011, during the Unk DaRos administration.
The public works topic was under discussion even before moderator Carol Reimers brought it up.
Mollow commented that the Public Works Department had been on the docket for several years but was not advancing. “Now would be the time to commit to submitting it to a subcommittee of the Building Commission,” she said. “They’re first responders and have been ignored long enough.” She said it was a concern among the people she has visited.
Cosgrove maintained that they have not been ignored. He said that the Walsh school renovation has been discussed for 20 years, amid escalating costs, as well as the Senior Center. He said a plan was needed before they moved into that facility during the previous administration.
Mollow said the town has been paying $130,000 a year to rent a facility that does not meet its needs. “A subcommittee to address its location is needed,” she said, adding that perhaps in the meantime there could be some negotiations for improvements or rent.
Cosgrove said that the Public Works Department is important to the town in terms of equipment and trained personnel.
Cosgrove said additional training has been provided to staff in terms of OSHA regulations and a practical exam when hiring “to ensure we’re bringing in the right people.” Efforts by Cosgrove and before him First Selectman Unk DaRos to find a new location for a public works building have so far not materialized even though the current rental facility at 137 North Branford Road is prone to flooding, accidents and injuries and has been deemed unsafe from time to time. (There has been serious flooding in the building and in February 2015, a Public Works employee was electrocuted but did not die when he experienced an electric shock inside the garage.)
Mollow noted that the Public Works director position has not been posted. “It’s been vacant for a while,” she said, “Would the fire chief or police chief position be vacant that long?” Click here to read about it.
Cosgrove replied, saying that the highway superintendent “is essentially the acting director,” who has “lots of experience.” (Neither candidate pointed out that the acting director, Gary Zielinksi, was a longtime employee at Cosgrove Construction, the first selectman’s company in Branford. Cosgrove’s company is now closed. Zielinski was hired as a Public Works employee and later promoted to highway superintendent.)
“We’re well staffed,” Cosgrove responded. “We’re looking at the job description… a better way to structure. The department is doing a tremendous job.”
Both candidates stressed the importance of protecting coastal properties, especially since they provide a solid tax base.
Mollow cited the coastal resilience projects waiting and the need to involve as many people as possible. “It’s important to improve infrastructure and protect properties,” she said. “We’re suffering some property damage and that’s what we base taxes on.”
Cosgrove said, “Coastal resilience is something we’re committed to and executing.” He said that coastal resilience and an update of hazard mitigation plans are in the works along with a grant with two other towns to focus on some other areas. A $900,000 grant is in the works for the Linden Avenue area.
“You can’t get any funding until you have a solid plan in mind,” said Mollow, adding that Town Engineer Janice Plaziak has been involved in overseeing the project. “We need to use resources at hand to take on projects to protect properties – they pay the lion’s share of property taxes.
“If property values go down it’ll affect our base. If people move to town and take one of these coastal properties they want to know they’re being protected,” Mollow said. “We can become a model for what can be done in coastal towns.”
“Coastal resilience plans need to be available for funding,” said Cosgrove. “Two plans have been done – one through our Council of governments (on green infrastructure)… and another study to focus on hardening the infrastructure.”
He said that stable neighborhoods are in jeopardy and need to be protected. “We have to take those plans and execute them,” he said. The Linden Avenue project is at the design phase now, he added.
He cited the Community House as “a town asset with a lot of history… it’s the hub of the community.” He said, “We have a responsibility to protect that. It’s another example of protecting our infrastructure, protecting our assets.”
The Town’s Finances
In responding to a question about the possible need to increase the mill rate in light of decreasing state aid, both candidates agreed on the fact that Branford is fiscally responsible.
“Branford is well managed financially,” said Mollow. “We can’t count on the state. We have to look at opportunities to be innovative… It’s a wake-up call.” She said that she is in favor of reducing spending through regionalization and sharing resources, such as what’s already being done with the animal shelter and health department, perhaps extending it to the 911 call center.
Cosgrove said the budget is a conservative process and is being “dialed back” even further. “A tight, restraining budget will head off a mill rate increase,” he said. “We need to grow the tax base. I’m a proponent of that.”
Mollow said that rising property taxes were a big concern among the people she’s spoken to, noting that one person said their taxes had doubled in 20 years. Taxes should be shifted from personal to commercial, she added.
“That’s why I thought Costco would be good for Branford,” Cosgrove replied.
The candidates shared their aspirations for the town.
Cosgrove said that building a better Branford is an obligation among all officials. “There must be a balance between conservation and appropriate development… a high level of services, high quality of life.”
Mollow stressed that Branford needs to be promoted as dynamic town and people need to be able to find information. “We need to promote ourselves… getting people to stay and take advantage of our natural wonders.”
Mollow said she would be committed to keeping taxes as low as possible “during these challenging times and fully staffing the Public Works Department, adding that Jack Ahern, former fire chief and current selectman, with his emergency management skills, would help guide that effort.
“We accomplished a lot, moving forward with parks, sidewalks, trail systems, and bigger projects,” Cosgrove said. He said that his running mate, Joe Higgins, is most qualified, given his professional career in fire department management.
“It’s about Branford, not Republicans, Democrats, or Unaffiliateds,” said Cosgrove, repeating one of his favorite election phrases.
And then came the smiles and a final handshake between the candidates as Election Day nears.