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Democratic First Selectman candidate Dan Rosenthal would not go as far as calling the 12 to 15 cents he says Newtown residents get back for every dollar of income tax sent to Hartford obscene.
But during a nearly hour-long catch-up with The Newtown Bee on August 9, the third-generation political hopeful, looking to lead the community over the next two years or more, agreed that whomever captures the first selectman’s office come November is going to need to find justifiable ways to leverage a more equitable level of return on investment (ROI) from the state on behalf of local taxpayers.
“I saw one comment about wanting to wean [Newtown] off state handouts,” he said. “But I don’t view Newtown sending the state tens of millions in income taxes and getting back less than 15 or 20 cents on the dollar — I just don’t view that as a handout. I don’t see Education Cost Sharing as a handout. But any way you look at it, we should be looking at how we’re going to manage the town in the absence of a state funding stream that we previously received.”
At the same time, Mr Rosenthal said he does not see a near future scenario where state aid from Hartford will increase unless local leaders and the community’s state delegation of lawmakers can make a viable case for it.
One of the bargaining chips he did acknowledge was in the area of winter road maintenance, since Newtown’s public works crews are often pressed to plow, sand, and/or salt stretches of state roads during winter storms whenever state resources and crews are diverted to clearing highways and main state roads in communities not as equipped for doing it themselves.
“We should lobby the state for whatever support we can get. If the state would just give us more money to plow Routes 25 and 34 and Church Hill Road, that seems it would give them some economy, get the roads done quicker, and we can get some revenue that will hopefully offset the costs,” he said.
Continuing on the subject of roads, Mr Rosenthal believes the current program for repairing and improving Newtown’s roads and bridges will continue to progress slowly or continue to fall behind projected goals unless more local spending is steered toward that effort. With that in mind, the sole Democratic contender for the town’s top elected seat turned to the current approved Capital Improvement Plan.
Shifting Capital Spending
Looking over that five-year capital spending guide, Mr Rosenthal pegged a couple of projects that might be postponed or even scrapped to free up more money to escalate road improvements. Coincidentally, one of those planned projects is a $600,000 municipal truck washing station — a facility that has been promoted as mission critical to preserving and reducing maintenance costs on town-owned vehicles that play a major role in keeping Newtown’s roads clear and safe, particularly during and after winter storm events.
Another planned CIP expenditure he flagged was further improvements to the Eichler’s Cove public marina, boat launch, and swimming area near the Monroe town border. He suggested that in times of dwindling resources, projects that can generate enough revenues to help pay for themselves should be prioritized — something he could not see in relation to the planned $500,000 Eichler’s Cove project scheduled for the 2018-19 fiscal cycle.
“The way I see it, that’s $500,000 that could go toward roads,” he said. “That’s why a letter I wrote about the Treadwell Park parking lot work resonated so much with people a couple of months ago. I don’t like the idea that we have this [CIP] list, and the idea that something on there is on autopilot, and if we have the capital space to bond it, it more or less gets approved.”
Mr Rosenthal, who is a current elected member of the Police Commission, said that he planned to retain that seat if unsuccessful in his pursuit of the first selectman’s office. At the same time, he said in either capacity, he would be playing an important role as plans for a new police station moved forward in the coming two-plus-years.
He said while there is no arguing the Newtown Police Department requires a new headquarters, which was supported by local voters last fall in the first phase of bonding authorizations, the question of where that headquarters should be located must be subject to significant public input.
Mr Rosenthal said it is not a foregone conclusion that the new headquarters will, or should be, located at Fairfield Hills — unless there is measurable public support behind siting it there. He said that the business of operating a police agency may not be conducive to current or planned future recreational/municipal uses, or possibly expanded mixed use commercial/residential options for the town-owned campus.
At the same time, he said he is willing to listen and consider the ideas of residents and other officials who see Fairfield Hills as the perfect site for a new police headquarters as advantageous — appealing to those who see such a development as enhancing security by its proximity to other campus uses — and possibly replacing an existing building that can not be practically repurposed.
“We need to do this and the public supported the project. So if I’m elected, or as a member of the police commission, I would be an integral part of the project. A lot of the questions I got as the vote was coming up was about where this was going to go in Fairfield Hills,” he said. “But we don’t know where it’s going to go yet. I’m not saying I don’t support Fairfield Hills, but absent a better location that might cost the taxpayers a lot more money, the public still should be [invited] to forums or you might see a lot of opposition to putting it there. And what if we could do it a lot cheaper doing it elsewhere?”
Planning And Development
Refocusing on issues tied to economic development, Mr Rosenthal said that he is hearing from constituents and voters that after eight years under the current administration Newtown may be ready to “do things differently.”
“I’m feeling from the conversations I’m having that I’m hopefully going to be stepping into that void,” he said.
One of the things that Mr Rosenthal sees as a major requirement is for Newtown to develop a legitimate long-term strategic plan. He said having such a plan in place now might have helped as Board of Selectmen officials, including his father, former First Selectman Herb Rosenthal, supported a tax incentive to a large scale apartment developer in Hawleyville, only to see the proposal voted down by the Board of Finance.
“I agree that we need more diversity in our housing stock for younger folks who aren’t ready to buy yet, and established residents who may want to downsize their home but stay in town,” he said. “But what is the strategy behind this? Is this a one-off, or part of some strategic vision to bring this kind of housing to town? Are we proposing to bring a certain number of new residents to town? The rationale behind providing a tax incentive was for the developer to build out the complex and begin bringing in more new tenants faster, but I struggle with providing tax incentives after a project is already committed and in process.”
From a commercial standpoint, the Democratic candidate said that both the Town Economic Development Commission and Chamber of Commerce are working well together and doing great things to attract and retain businesses that help infuse the grand list and local tax base.
‘Set Our Priorities’
At the same time, he sees an advantage to creating a municipal Business Advisory Commission that would serve as a unique liaison giving municipal and Chamber of Commerce officials frontline insights on what commercial entities in town are facing in terms of global as well as local/municipal challenges — from regulatory concerns to other constraints that make doing business in Newtown less than optimal for them.
“We need to set our priorities, including spending priorities, which would be driven by a long-term strategic plan,” he said. “The first selectman has to be the face of that. You can’t wait for the businesses to come to you. It’s a competitive landscape; you have to get out and ask for the check, if you will. A proactive and not a reactive effort.”
Turning the tables, Mr Rosenthal recognized that even in the face of revenue and budgetary constraints, Newtown needs to work harder to serve both its commercial and residential “customers.” He said whether it is adjusting hours during prime periods to help make it more convenient for property owners to pay their taxes, to accommodating cyclical increases in traffic at the town clerk’s office, the transfer station, or other municipal agencies, town staffers may be in for a few changes to their existing workday schedules.
To that end, Mr Rosenthal suggested tapping the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities or other consulting experts to conduct an efficiency evaluation of town government agencies.
“My goal is to create more user-friendly town services,” he said. “Newtown needs to learn how to deliver resources smarter and faster, even in the face of constrained revenues.”