Norwich mayoral candidates face off in first debate

Norwich — The five mayoral candidates debated for the first time Tuesday, offering differing viewpoints on whether the position should be full time, how to spur economic development and ways to cut taxes for businesses and residents.

The 90-minute debate, hosted by the Norwich Bulletin, drew more than 100 spectators at Slater Auditorium. The Day will host a Norwich mayoral debate at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kelly Middle School.

Four of the candidates said they believe the mayor’s position should be full time and pledged to work at least 40 hours in the position. Democratic candidate Derell Wilson, Libertarian William Russell and petitioning candidates Joseph Radecki and Jon Oldfield all said they would devote full time hours to the position.

But former mayor and Republican candidate Peter Nystrom said the city charter approved by the voters retained the city manager form of government with a mayoral position paying $45,000 and listed with no set number of hours. Nystrom, who would retain his job at United Parcel Service if elected, said it would take a charter change put to voters to change the form of government.

Nystrom, however, estimated he worked an average of 30 hours a week in the position during his term from 2009 through 2013. Russell said changing the charter converting the mayor to full time would allow the city to eliminate the city manager position and its office, which costs more than $300,000 per year.

Oldfield criticized high salaries paid to some city and school administrators and high-level employees and said he would call for the 44 city employees making more than $150,000 per year to take a mandatory 7 percent pay cut to ease the tax burden.

Instead of tax breaks to new or expanded businesses, Oldfield also would ask Norwich Public Utilities to offer 50 percent utility rate breaks to those businesses. Oldfield complained about “free taxes” for 17 years to two large new development projects, the $30 million Ponemah Mill renovation in Taftville and the $7 million Hampton Inn on Route 82.

Nystrom quickly corrected that both projects are paying full taxes on the existing value of the buildings and partial taxes phased in over time on the multimillion-dollar improvements. Nystrom said the current Republican-controlled City Council actually cut property taxes directly, with a 5 percent spending cut ordered over last year’s budget total. He said if Republicans are elected as the majority again, he would look for more such savings.

Wilson said cutting taxes is fine, but elected city officials also have to be wary of how the cuts hurt Norwich residents, families and services, specifically education and human services. Services to families, including a full-time recreation director the city hasn’t had in four years, are part of economic development, making the city more attractive to new residents and businesses.

Wilson advocated bringing a splash pad to the city.

“We can find savings, yes,” Wilson said. “But are we hurting our residents, yes.”

Russell said the best way to spur economic development is for city government “to get out of the way.” He said city staffing, including police, should be cut, quoting a police staffing analysis that says Norwich should have about 65 officers instead of the current 87 officers.

Radecki had a different and more specific way to improve the city’s relationship with businesses and taxpayers — remove current Assessor Donna Ralston. Radecki said while his tax rate went down this year, but the assessment on his 30-year-old truck went up.

c.bessette@theday.com

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