Norwich mayoral candidates square off in debate

From left, Libertarian William Russell, Republican Peter Nystrom, petitioning candidate Joseph Radecki Jr., petitioning candidate Jon Oldfield and Democrat Derell Wilson during the Norwich mayoral debate at Kelly Middle School on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
From left, Libertarian William Russell, Republican Peter Nystrom, petitioning candidate Joseph Radecki Jr., petitioning candidate Jon Oldfield and Democrat Derell Wilson during the Norwich mayoral debate at Kelly Middle School on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich — The five mayoral candidates offered differing opinions on several topics ranging from whether the city should have a strong mayor, how best to fund the school system and whether the city is getting its money’s worth from the Norwich Community Development Corp.

An overflow crowd of about 100 people watched the debate, hosted by The Day with assistance from the League of Women Voters, at the Kelly Middle School community room. The full debate, moderated by Day editorial page editor Paul Choiniere, will be posted on www.theday.com Wednesday.

Asked whether the city should continue funding NCDC as the city’s economic development arm, petitioning candidate Joseph Radecki said the mayor’s job is economic development and whoever wins the title should retain that responsibility.

Petitioning candidate Jon Oldfield said of NCDC: “all they’ve been is a cash cow to us,” given all the money the city has paid NCDC each year. He said a potential developer told him that NCDC took him to see a building in Greeneville, but the outside was strewn with litter and debris and the man refused to enter the building.

Democratic candidate Derell Wilson said any new mayor would enter the job in mid-year and it wouldn’t be right to “pull the plug” in mid-stream. And, Wilson said, the city has never given NCDC guidelines and goals to meet in its economic development role. If the agency doesn’t meet those goals, he said, then “have that conversation.”

Libertarian William Russell, however, said he is ready to pull the plug on the city’s funding for the independent nonprofit corporation and give the economic development task to the mayor.

“NCDC has been really very lax on their job and everything else,” Russell said. “I think it’s time to start looking elsewhere. It’s the mayor’s job anyhow for economic development. Let's let the mayor do his job and not depend on a private agency like NCDC to do his job.”

Republican candidate and Council President Pro Tempore Peter Nystrom disagreed with the criticism of NCDC. He credited the agency for its successful pursuit of financing for the $100 million Ponemah Mill renovation project. The agency also manages the city business park, and helps to recruit new businesses to the business park, including the several million-dollar Dominion emergency response center in the business park and the new Norwich Beverage Co.

“There is a track record to be proud of there,” Nystrom said.

When Oldfield attempted to counter that the Ponemah Mill project and a new Hampton Inn on Route 82 won’t pay taxes for 17 years — “I’ll be dead by then,” he said — Nystrom quickly corrected him. Both projects are paying full taxes on existing assessments of the buildings, while taxes on the value of renovations are being phased in over time. Nystrom made the same correction during a debate last week.

The candidates also differed on the central city fire tax, which has been a hotbed issue in recent years. Property owners in the central city fire district pay an additional 8.2 mills for the service on top of the 40.52-mill tax rate.

Nystrom said he strongly opposes any effort to spread the tax into the five volunteer fire districts in the city. He said city officials need to work on ways to lower the burden, including recent negotiated changes to the firefighters’ contract.

Nystrom said spreading the tax to the volunteer districts would hurt some of the city’s largest businesses, which could push them to leave the city.

Russell said “taxes, period, hurt economic development.” He said the city needs to reduce taxes dramatically and everyone who lives in the central fire district complains about the cost. He would like to reduce or eliminate the tax.

Oldfield said solving the problem would have to include fixing the rift between the paid and volunteer departments by reinstating regular fire chiefs’ meetings and finding ways to work together to relieve part of the burden, “but not all of it,” Oldfield said.

Radecki, whose home and business are in the Taftville volunteer district, said it would be a good plan to spread the tax, asking people in the volunteer districts to pay perhaps a quarter mill more to ease the burden in the central city. He said both city and volunteer firefighters respond to major fires in the city.

Wilson, a resident of the paid fire district, said city leaders have to ask residents and city taxpayers for their positions and priorities on the fire tax. He emphasized that no one on the Democratic slate is proposing to spread the fire tax citywide.

“That’s not the way to go,” Wilson said. “That’s not a discussion we’re having."

c.bessette@theday.com

Upcoming Norwich candidate forums

Remaining Norwich candidate forums:

Hosted by Norwich Free Academy Young Voters Society:

City Council candidates: Wednesday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m., Sidney Frank Center, NFA.

Board of Education candidates: Thursday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m., Kelly Middle School.

 

Hosted by Youth in Democracy Challenge

City Council candidates: Monday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m., lower level, United Congregational Church, 87 Broadway.

Board of Education candidates: Tuesday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m., lower level, United Congregational Church, 87 Broadway.

Mayoral candidates: Monday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m., lower level, United Congregational Church, 87 Broadway.

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