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When Republican Selectman and first selectman candidate Will Rodgers looks across the landscape of this November’s municipal ballot, he sees the potential for changes across a wide swath of elected boards and commissions bringing a lot of new faces and energy to the table.
But when he turns his attention to the business of guiding and managing Newtown’s municipal affairs over the next two years, he sees a critical need for some continuity — especially considering the financial challenges the town could experience in the face of restrained or completely eliminated state aid; the shift from planning to construction of not only a new community center and senior center, but a new police headquarters as well; and a need to keep planned improvements of town roads and continued demolition of abandoned buildings at Fairfield Hills on track.
At the same time, Mr Rodgers believes the town needs a first selectman with hands-on experience who is willing and able to aggressively represent the community in soliciting new commercial economic development that will continue to hedge against a tax base that is proportionately skewed against local residential taxpayers.
These are just a few of the subjects covered by Mr Rodgers during a final sit down with The Newtown Bee ahead of the newspaper’s planned Candidates Forum at Edmond Town Hall on October 24, where residents can see and judge for themselves whether they will support the only incumbent selectman on the ballot, the Democratic challenger Dan Rosenthal, or the petitioning GOP contender Andrew “Andy” Clure.
Mr Rodgers hopes local voters will agree that his practical experience as an attorney; his long military experience as a Marine Corps colonel (ret) and Bronze Star recipient; his local political leadership as both chairman of the Legislative Council and four-term selectman; and his volunteer work helping to establish and administer post 12/14 philanthropic efforts and a local community foundation, adds up to a winning combination when they report to the polls on November 7.
While Mr Rodgers sees a need to get out in front of possible commercial developers to bring new businesses and a more fortified commercial tax base to town, he shakes his head when hearing jargon that infers Newtown should be run more like a business.
“I don’t believe government should be run exclusively like a business,” he said, “it should be more compassionate.”
At the same time, Mr Rodgers said he and his running mate Jeff Capeci — also a former council and former Charter Revision Commission chairman — believe that every official and resident in Newtown can and should make their voices heard about ways they believe the town can be run better. Armed with that input, the GOP candidate said he and Mr Capeci can be counted on to follow a very evident and transparent plan to achieve those goals.
“There is a need to listen first,” he said. “And then people can count on us to be scrupulously loyal to process. I think sticking to process will be a good way to lead, and it’s a good way to help newcomers and others.”
When it comes to calls for change, or suggestions that Newtown will only improve by changing its political leadership, Mr Rodgers encourages residents to take a look at how well Newtown has done in recent years.
“We’ve come out on top despite the effects of the Great Recession, the Sandy Hook tragedy, and three major storms that hit the community,” he said. “Certainly there are areas that can bear improvement, but nothing is screaming out for wholesale change, and there is nothing catastrophic looming out on the horizon.”
Finding Best Solutions
Despite his observations, Mr Rodgers sees the first selectman’s race shaping up to be about experience versus change.
“We tout our experience because it’s important, not just abstract,” he said. “These times demand experience because of the state budget situation, plus what will be a higher than normal turnover on elective and appointed bodies. So I believe in this election, it will help to bring a higher degree of experience to the top elected offices.”
The candidate was recently approached by a constituent who suggested he might fare better in the first selectman race if he identifies as “less Republican.” And Mr Rodgers admitted seeing a lot of local energy driving more political engagement as a result of dissatisfaction and even anger at leadership from the Democrat leading Connecticut, to the Republican sitting in the White House.
“I’m a Republican because I believe in the core philosophies of limited government and have concerns for protecting individual rights and liberties,” he said. “But at a local level we’re working to find the best solutions for Newtown. I find it rare that any solution justifies dismissal on partisan grounds.”
At the same time, he understands those identifying with Democrats’ passion for change.
“Certainly national level political doings have had a trickle-down effect in terms of partisanship. But my plea would be: don’t bring partisan preconceptions or prejudices to the local job,” he said.
“I’m prepared to work with anyone, regardless of their party, or those who don’t identify with any party,” he continued. “I [feel] that when we get down to the work that needs to be done, party politics will not get in the way. My life’s work in various contexts has been working across the aisles to bring people together.”
Mr Rodgers said his focus on the day of his interview would not change if or when he takes over for departing First Selectman and four-term running mate Pat Llodra on December 1.
“My number one priority: we have to hold on to the gains we’ve made through fiscal policies, even though we’re being punished for that now,” he said, referring to Governor Dannel Malloy’s complete reduction of all state aid to Newtown in great part because the community has fortified and maintained a healthy fund balance in relation to its annual operating budgets.
“Our healthy fund balance came about with lots of attention to process and fiscal detail,” he said. “We stopped using those funds for tax mitigation, and we revised our bonding and Capital Improvement policies, and as a result our bond rating improved to AAA, and our capital borrowing costs dropped, saving taxpayers millions.”
If successful, December 1 will also mark the day Mr Rodgers hits the pavement to begin reeling in new prospective and appropriate commercial development.
“It’s important for the first selectman to act as an ambassador in that respect. My style is not to micromanage, but from an economic development standpoint, I plan to be heavily involved,” he said. “That is no criticism of the parties involved now, but I firmly believe we need to stop nibbling in from the edges and really hit the bull’s-eye with new revenue-producing projects. Continuing to try and reduce spending and looking for ways to increase efficiencies just isn’t going to cut it.”
Prioritizing Capital Projects
Regarding capital projects in process or on the books for imminent initiation, Mr Rodgers sees roads as one of the main ways to telegraph top taxpayers that their investments in the community are being returned in a way they can actually see and feel.
“We will continue catching up on road improvements, and prospectively, see that we are maintaining roads in our operating budget [versus continuing to bond for road work],” he said. “And I think our bridge program is in good enough shape to evaluate whether to look at it from a program basis versus a project basis.”
As he and Mr Capeci make their way through Newtown’s neighborhoods, Mr Rodgers said the resounding cry is to control or reduce taxes, improve roads, and maintain a high quality local education system.
“Roads produce a monolithic response,” he said, “everyone thinks we need to up our game.”
Regarding schools, Mr Rodgers is hearing continued support for improving the quality of education.
“Everyone wants to improve the quality of our schools,” he said. “But at the same time, there needs to be greater recognition of the student enrollment decline. Many taxpayers are expressing that they are not seeing what they think should be a budget drop commensurate with that population decline.
“At the same time, being involved with the post-12/14 recovery to the extent that I have, I see justification for maintaining that school budget despite the decline because it has helped us retain important support services that our students and school staff have needed,” he added.
The Board of Selectman has no influence or line item authority over the school budget, but Mr Rodgers knows from experience that if the full effect of state Education Cost Sharing reductions holds as proposed, cooperative discussions on school budget reductions “need to start from a place of cooperation, not authority.”
Regarding ongoing projects at Fairfield Hills, Mr Rodgers starts from the perspective of what has already been accomplished on his watch, both as a councilman and a selectman.
“We’ve already made a lot of progress by demolishing or abating more than a dozen buildings, plus supporting the streetscape and trail work, and building or planning new buildings,” he said. When and if the time is right, and the right parties are willing, the candidate sees new options for development, including mixed use, as a viable option for the town-owned campus.
“The expense to use, or reuse existing buildings remains daunting for developers,” he said. “That has not stopped us from presenting the aesthetic qualities of the campus. But we also must continue to pursue demolitions that are planned because they serve as a key marketing tool.”
Mr Rodgers is also happy to see a possibility for relocating and developing a police headquarters at Fairfield Hills.
“It’s a fact that the current building is inadequate, and has been for some time,” he said. “I’m happy to see they are considering Fairfield Hills, but no matter what, I’m eager to see this project moving forward.”
While Mr Rodgers appreciates all the work the Parks and Recreation Department has done to maintain its own capital plans and work toward being revenue neutral, he sees major projects funded by taxpayers proceeding on a “need to have, versus a nice to have” basis.
“It’s as simple as looking at what [planned projects] can get us in trouble if we don’t do them, and then looking at projects that might safely be deferred,” he said. He also believes that planned taxpayer supported capital projects at Edmond Town Hall and the C.H. Booth Library should stay on track.
“If anything, depending on the future of state revenue, we may have to phase certain projects or spread them out a bit more in the [Capital Improvement Plan],” he said.