Published October 23. 2013 4:00AM Updated October 23. 2013 3:51PM
Norwich - The three-way mayoral race offers plenty of contrasts with Republican incumbent Peter Nystrom and Democratic Alderwoman Deb Hinchey offering ideas on how to turn the city around, while Libertarian William Russell proposed big cuts in government and property taxes.
Nystrom, who served 18 years as a Norwich state representative, is seeking his second four-year term as mayor. Hinchey won the Sept. 10 primary over the Democratic Town Committee's narrowly endorsed candidate, Alderman Charles Jaskiewicz. Russell entered the race at the urging of former Libertarian congressional candidate Dan Reale.
Hinchey and Nystrom both talk of finding cost savings, possibly consolidating some departments and seeking department input on budget cuts - unlike last spring's last-minute controversial cuts.
But Russell wants drastic cuts. He would limit city spending to public safety and essential services to handle emergencies. The City Council has authority to bond up to $800,000 for a specific project without a referendum, but Russell would put all bonding "over 10 cents" to voters.
Russell supports charter revision and favors a strong mayoral government, eliminating the city manager while keeping the mayor's salary at the current $45,000.
Nystrom and Hinchey said Russell's proposals would cripple the city, violate city contracts and hurt economic development.
Hinchey agreed with Russell only in that the mayor should be full-time. Hinchey, a clinical social worker, said she would retire and devote full-time attention to the mayor's office.
Nystrom, a driver for United Parcel Service, has been criticized for not serving full-time as mayor. Nystrom had hoped to shift his schedule from prime daytime hours when he was first elected but was unable to do so. He said he devotes many hours to the mayor's office and has been available to meet with the public or prospective developers throughout his four years in office.
Hinchey said as an alderwoman and mayoral candidate, she has built up relationships with city departments, the Norwich Community Development Corp. and city police and fire departments. She believes she can coordinate and improve their working relationships with one another.
"There is a wealth of talent there," Hinchey said. "I think we can bring them together."
She has met with state agencies and legislators to learn more about their involvement in Norwich and said she would continue that to "get us noticed" in Hartford.
Nystrom said he already has sought state attention. Nystrom is pursing a new downtown brownfields cleanup grant for blighted areas, including Lake and Pond streets. He wants to take advantage of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's support for environmental cleanups.
"I'm focusing on getting downtown on the grand list," Nystrom said, emphasizing that the urban center with its many rundown properties is not contributing enough to the city tax base.
Russell objects to the idea of seeking state or federal grants to reduce the burden on city taxpayers. He said it's all taxpayer money, and he wants to spend less of it.
Russell would seek to sell much city-owned property including the golf course, the ice rink, perhaps Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium and any foreclosed properties. Instead of foreclosing on tax delinquents, he said the city should work out payment plans to bring in some tax dollars.
Nystrom and Hinchey both were involved in controversial last-minute budget cuts in June, followed by the failed attempt Oct. 7 to restore a Human Services Department social worker and grants accounting clerk. More than 600 supporters signed petitions asking to restore the positions.
"Cutting Human Services was one of the most shameful things we did," Hinchey said. "It was awful."
Hinchey said she initially voted for the cuts in response to numerous calls from residents asking to cut the proposed 5 percent tax increase. Hinchey later voted to restore the positions.
Hinchey would start the 2014-15 budget process the day after she is sworn in as mayor, involving city departments in cuts that could include consolidating either offices or locations, rather than dictating positions to be eliminated.
Nystrom opposed restoring the Human Services positions and criticized Hinchey for "flipping" her vote. Nystrom said the public needs to trust the City Council that once a budget is set, it will remain in place for the entire year.
Both Nystrom and Hinchey insisted they support the city Human Services Department. Nystrom said as a state legislator he championed Norwich Human Services' efforts to protect the city from a proliferation of unregulated substance abuse recovery houses. As mayor, he did so again recently when Human Services staff helped discover that the January Center, a sex offender treatment center in Montville, had placed sex offenders in Norwich apartments near playgrounds.
"I am not for closing that department," Hinchey said. "I would fight tooth and nail to keep that. A city this size has to have a vibrant human services department."