Experience will be in short supply at pivotal time for North Stonington
North Stonington — With some of the town's most experienced officeholders sitting out the upcoming election, the town is poised to be led by a relative newcomer at a key time.
With state aid potentially dwindling and major municipal projects in the works — bids to renovate the town's schools are expected to be awarded soon and construction is set to begin on the new Center for Emergency Services building — Selectman Nicholas Mullane II, who ran Town Hall for nearly three decades, and First Selectman Shawn Murphy will not be running in the upcoming election.
Enter the two candidates for first selectman.
Asa Palmer, 23, is a relative newcomer to town politics. A graduate of Wheeler High School and lifelong resident of North Stonington, Palmer manages a herd of 250 dairy cattle in town. He jumped into the first selectman race late in the game; he said he initially had thought he was going to run for the Board of Finance but saw the opportunity in the first selectman spot when no one else volunteered. Most recently, he has been a member of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission. He is running as a Republican alongside selectman candidate Robert Carlson.
Mike Urgo, 40, recently opened The Urgo Agency, which offers insurance through the Farmers Insurance Group, on Norwich-Westerly Road. He serves as the chairman of the School Modernization Committee, and previously has served as a member of the Board of Finance, among other roles.
He moved to town seven years ago after growing up in Hopkinton, R.I., and has two children in the school system. He is unaffiliated but received an endorsement from the Democratic Town Committee. Urgo led the third and final proposal to renovate the town's schools, and some in town credit him with getting the $38.5 million school building project passed by a narrow three-vote margin.
Both say the ongoing school renovation project will be a major responsibility for the first selectman going forward.
Palmer said he was "not a fan of the way the school project advocates got the referendum to pass" and said he wonders whether the town has the tax base to support it, though he added he is a strong supporter of the high school and wants to attract more out-of-district students to it.
"A lot of people were misled on the massive impact the school (project) would have on taxes, especially combined with a firehouse project, and the budget chaos in Hartford," he wrote in an email.
For his part, Urgo said he is "excited about what the town is becoming" with the school building project and other development in town. He added that he supports additional development in line with the town's Plan of Conservation and Development.
Among other major changes being considered that could have an impact on economic development are a re-zoning of the western end of Route 2 near Foxwoods Resort Casino for luxury RV parks, commercial indoor and outdoor recreation and vacation resorts.
Palmer said he wants to make economic development a key feature of his potential tenure as first selectman and said he is looking into a tax-abatement system for new businesses and streamlining the planning and zoning process. New tax revenue from businesses is essential in light of the state budget situation, he said.
"We need to lose our reputation of being a tough town to do business in," he said.
Similarly, Urgo said the state budget situation is going to require town leaders to stay in constant communication with Hartford to ensure that state aid doesn't drop dramatically.
There's "no doubt" the town is dependent on state funding, Urgo said.
"I would like to see North Stonington become more independent," he added.
Of the upcoming priorities for an incoming first selectman, communication is key, Urgo said. He majored in communications at the University of Rhode Island, and said his previous management experience running the branch of a bank are things he can bring to bear on a relatively green Town Hall, especially since the budget for a proposed Finance and Administration official to aid town hall has yet to be approved.
"I feel comfortable enough to collaborate with others (and) weigh decisions with a limited amount of knowledge," he said. Customers at his insurance agency know him well from his involvement in town politics, he said, and even those who don't agree with his politics trust his decisionmaking, he said.
For Palmer, improving communication between businesses and Town Hall is one of the reasons he decided he would run, he said. Too often the town doesn't have a friendly relationship with businesses, he added.
Prior to his candidacy, he said, he's had a few bumps in the road, including a 2015 arrest for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol that he describes as a mistake. He added he has "learned more from my mistakes than I have from my success" and is now more focused than ever on working for the town.
"I'm ready to be a public servant," he said. "If times were good, I wouldn't want to be running, I'd like to be farming. Anyone can do it when times are good."
Both candidates plan to attend a series of community discussions with the other candidates for the Board of Selectmen, which is being organized by Urgo. The first discussion will take place in a neighborhood field at the corner of Forest and Pond roads at 6 p.m. Sept. 13.
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