Norwich City Council candidates debate taxes, development issues

Norwich — A City Council candidate debate featuring 13 of the 17 candidates on the ballot offered a different format, dividing candidates by party and asking each group to confer and respond to questions posed.

The debate, hosted by the Norwich Free Academy Young Voters Society and the Norwich Bulletin, was dominated by talk of economic development, cutting spending and taxes and providing services to the city.

All six Democratic candidates, none of them incumbents, participated: Robert Phoenix, Samuel Browning, Zato Kadambaya, current school board member Kevin Saythany, Stephanie Burnham and Joseph DeLucia. The five Republicans on the ballot, incumbents William Nash, Joanne Philbrick and Stacy Gould, current school board member Margaret Becotte and former state legislative candidate Rob Dempsky, also participated.

Two of the five Libertarian council candidates, James Fear and Nicholas Casiano, attended.

Spirited exchanges among the candidates started with the first question, an invitation to outline their parties' three goals for the upcoming year.

Fear said Libertarians cut property taxes and cut spending, while also working to improve services for both young and older residents. Fear also said the city needs more transparency in the budget process. Taxpayers, he said, don’t know where the money goes.

Democrat DeLucia said the Democratic slate would strengthen city schools as a kick-starter for economic development and involve more residents in creating a plan to cut spending and find efficiency.

Republican Gould said her party would continue the current Republican-controlled council’s efforts to cut taxes and spending while working with the Norwich Community Development Corp. to attract businesses to the city.

Democrat Burnham countered that the Libertarian platform was contradictory in stating goals of big spending cuts while increasing services to youths and older residents.

Those platforms served as themes throughout the debate in response to questions about taxes, economic development and the city’s dual fire tax system. None of the three party slates wanted to do away with the fire tax system, which currently has property owners in the central city district paying 8.2 mills more in taxes to cover the paid fire department.

Candidates from all three parties said they do not support spreading the paid fire tax into the city's five volunteer fire districts. Democrat Browning said efficiencies of service could be realized if the relationship among the departments improved. He said the densely populated and developed central city needs the quick response of the paid department.

“If you can’t have a good relationship, you won’t have economies,” Browning said.

Republican Gould, an East Great Plain volunteer firefighter, touted the Republican council’s move that shifted $500,000 in Norwich Public Utilities revenues from the central city fire tax district into general tax base, helping to reduce taxes citywide. She said she and her colleagues would look to do more of the same.

Democrat Kadambaya passionately responded later in the 90-minute debate that cutting spending alone will not improve Norwich. He said when he worked as math department head at NFA, he met many families who moved into the NFA sending town network, but not to Norwich. He said the city needs a recreation director to organize programs for youths and keep the city active and attractive.

Republican Philbrick objected to claims that the Republicans’ budget process was not transparent. She said council meetings were public and included public hearings and residents have a responsibility to participate in the budget process.

“The taxes in Norwich have been too high for too long,” Philbrick said. “Everyone says to cut, but they’re not saying ‘cut my budget.’”

DeLucia later responded that Republicans used 11th-hour tactics to change the budget-night agenda to cut departments and staffing without allowing public input. But Republican Dempsky blamed the Democratic-led state government’s budget impasse for the last-minute nature of the city’s budget process.

Democrat Phoenix pledged that the Democratic slate would take the budget talks on the road, meeting with residents in their neighborhoods outside City Hall and getting community input on budget decisions.

Candidates in all three parties expressed cool responses to whether Norwich should have a budget referendum. Fear said such votes can tie up budgets for months, but he would favor “some kind of referendum” during the budget process for people to give input before the final council vote.

Republican Nash said he would go along with a budget referendum if residents approved it through charter change.

The two Libertarian candidates and Republican counterparts repeated that lowering taxes would generate economic development. Fear also questioned why Norwich Public Utilities would sell water and provide sewer services to surrounding towns, thus allowing businesses to open in Bozrah and Sprague instead of Norwich.

“You can’t allow all these surrounding towns to scoop up all our businesses and use up our services,” Fear said.

A second council candidates debate will be held at 7 p.m. Monday in the lower level of the United Congregational Church, 87 Broadway, sponsored by Youth in Democracy Challenge.

c.bessette@theday.com

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