Firmin, Nickerson debate housing, town spending, police
East Lyme — First Selectman Mark Nickerson and challenger Wes Firmin discussed issues such as development, the local response to the state budgetary crisis, and police services during their Monday debate.
The two candidates for first selectman debated before a full audience in the East Lyme High School auditorium during a forum sponsored by The Day with the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.
The candidates offered their opinions on whether the "rapid development" of apartments and housing poses a threat to the town's character and is a strain on its services, or if it should be seen as progress.
Firmin said it's good to have apartment developments, so people can move here and rent, if necessary, before purchasing a home. But, on the other hand, he said, the more people who move to town, the more children who will be in the school system. He said there needs to be a way to make it fair for taxpayers.
Nickerson said development isn't rapid, but it is growing, since East Lyme is a desirable town that people want to move to with low taxes and a good school system. He said the town has a thriving business community and new developments, including a new dentist office, orthopedic building, and condos on Hope Street. He added it is zoned properly, with 4 percent of land set aside for commercial development.
In terms of how East Lyme should prepare for future reductions in state aid, Nickerson, a Republican, said the town needs to live within its means.
"We need to find more efficiencies, more opportunities for regionalization," he said. "The last thing we want to do is raise taxes. We don't want to make property values go down because the taxes go up, but we also don't want to lose the quality of our schools, so there's a balance."
Firmin, a Republican who is running as a petitioning candidate, responded: "We need to stop spending our money on wants and focus on the needs of the town. We spend a lot of money on certain teams' wants in this town. We need to focus on our needs, the needs of all the people in this town."
As an example, Firmin said there is more of a need to spend money on new sewer pumps in downtown Niantic, than on tearing down the former Mobil gas station in downtown Niantic for a "couple of park benches and a few more parking spots."
Nickerson countered that the Water and Sewer Department runs separately from the town, so when the pump station is fixed, the ratepayers pay for it. He said 73 percent of the town voted in favor of buying the gas station site for a park at a referendum. He said the selling of granite blocks, leftover purchase money, and grant money will pay for the beautification.
The candidates also debated the potential for East Lyme to partner with Old Lyme to create one police force for the two towns. Fimin said it was "way too early" to start thinking about regionalizing with Old Lyme and the East Lyme Police Department — which went independent on July 1 — doesn't have the manpower or equipment to take that step.
Nickerson said it was only preliminary discussions, but there could be benefits to partnering with Old Lyme, such as better beach patrol, synergies when the highway is shut down, and more police officers on duty.
The two candidates sparred at times during the debate.
Firmin who said he would give up his current jobs if elected, alleged that Nickerson was running his businesses and didn't spend enough time at Town Hall. Nickerson responded that he works full time at Town Hall and has three managers running his local GEICO offices.
When Firmin said that it's difficult to get answers in town and if elected first selectman, he would have an "open door policy," Nickerson said the town has public meetings and quipped that Firmin had "been to two."
"Experience is necessary for the job, Wes, and also showing up at public meetings is necessary to find out what's going on," Nickerson added. He said minutes are published on the website, and there's already an "open door policy," as he responds to emails and calls, or refers them to department heads.
Firmin responded: "Open door policy, and everything, but no there's not a lot that is open to this town and taxpayers. And I've been to more meetings than two. I'm glad to see that you're counting, though."
The candidates found common ground in opposing regionalization of the school system, supporting a dog park in town, preserving the Oswegatchie Hills, and advocating for local government to seriously respond to the opioid crisis, though they offered different approaches.
A video of the debate will be posted on www.theday.com
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