The candidates for Redding First Selectman have voiced their opinions in two different debates heading into the November election. One was hosted by the League of Women Voters, the other by Channel 12. Democratic incumbent Julia Pemberton is seeking a second term. Prior to public service, Pemberton was in publishing, small business and has an entrepreneurship background.
Republican Eric Witt is looking to unseat Pemberton. He is a consultant by trade, and is currently a Redding Board of Education member. Witt wants to bring an outside perspective to the office. He's led security forces, been to firefighting school and helped run emergency management exercises with state police and state agencies. He has managed a countrywide transition for NATO and Afghanistan, and holds a doctorate in Law and Policy and degrees in engineering, management and finance. He says taxes are too high, the real estate values aren't high enough and the Georgetown project isn't moving forward.
They discussed their differing views on the future of the Gilbert and Bennett Wire Mill site. The factory went bankrupt in 2002 and owed Redding $1 million in back taxes. The then-administration sold the tax liens to a developer who had great hopes for the property. There is a single entity developer, a special taxing district in default of all of its debt obligations and 14 lien holders. In 2008 with the housing market crash and the bank meltdown, money dried up and the project remained stagnant.
Witt says the property is important for the town's tax base. He says it's going to take a lot of different skills to move the project forward. He touted his legal, financial, engineering, negotiation and leadership skills. Witt called for new strategic plans to be put in place for what will happen next.
Pemberton says no one really understood why the project hadn't moved forward, and the position the town was put in with a special taxing district. Dialogue with the owner and the bond holders has been reignited. She says the interest of the taxpayers is being protected with a foreclosure action that's been filed. Pemberton says the 2005 plan is probably not scaled properly for today's economy.
Witt was critical of Redding having the third highest property tax of the 13 most affluent towns in Fairfield County. He wants to run the town more like a business, going over the budget line item by line item. He also called for finding programs that aren't effective or efficient, rework them if possible or eliminate them if it's not.
He also suggested doing more service sharing across town and regionally. He wants to focus on better road maintenance. Witt said the old adage 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' should be followed when it comes to roads.
Pemberton says Redding has almost 100 miles of road. Because of the recession and the pressure to keep spending low, the Board of Finance chose to bond for road maintenance and reconstruction at that time.
Witt noted that the school budget has declined, but the Selectmen budget has increased.
Pemberton says the Board of Education budget is about 70-percent of spending in town, with the Board of Selectmen's budget making up the 30-percent balance. Within that part of the budget, Pemberton says public safety and debt services are the largest pieces. She says a police contract that had been open since 2012 was settled allowing for officers to work more hours, with less overtime. After Sandy Hook, a greater level of security was called for in the schools. School Security Officers have been implemented at the elementary school and she wants to follow up with a similar model for the middle school.
Witt touted enhancements in the quality of education in Redding. He cited expansion of the foreign language program, full day Kindergarten, investments in technology and extending learning time at the middle school. Infrastructure was also invested in.
Pemberton says the Board of Finance unanimously approved the proposed Board of Selectmen budget, whereas the Finance Board sought additional savings from the Board of Ed. She says the reductions in school spending is largely due to declining enrollment. Pemberton holds quarterly "realtor coffees". She touted no tax increases in two years, a mill rate that declined last year and stayed flat this year all while not depleting the unassigned fund balance.