Great GOP victory in Norwich, but now what?
Norwich witnessed a taxpayer revolt on Election Day.
When the marauding voters were done, Republicans in this normally Democratic city had seized control of the City Council (which seldom happens) and the Board of Education (which never happens) and even the treasurer’s office.
Some of the proposed charter changes fell in the face of the rebellion. Rejected was a proposal to exempt Norwich Public Utilities from the city bonding limit of $800,000, if the projects were paid through utility revenues, rather than taxes. The municipal utility also wanted the authority to enter into contracts beyond 10 years, contending that the existing limit put it at a disadvantage, but voters said no. They also rejected a technical change as to when the comptroller presents financial reports.
None of these changes would have had any direct influence on taxes, but knowing they had something to do with finances led voters to reject them.
When the newly elected officials take office next month Republicans will have a 5-2 majority on the council, 5-4 on the Board of Education.
In June, the sitting council approved a $121.1 million combined school and city budget that hiked the tax rate another 2.35 mills, a 6 percent increase, bringing the overall tax rate to 40.9 mills. In the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, property owners pay an additional tax rate of 7.16 mills to support the paid fire service serving that area, giving those folks an effective tax rate of 48.06 mills.
Led by former mayor and state representative Peter Nystrom, who was seeking a City Council seat, the Republicans saw a political opening and focused on the high taxes, promising to cut them. They also tapped into voter discontent with Democrats at the state level and the tax hikes approved by the legislature, violating Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 2014-campaign pledge to hold the line on taxes. Running against a governor with approval ratings below 40 percent was a sound strategy.
Democrats had no coordinated response and Mayor Deberey Hinchey, who is not up for re-election until 2017, chose to stay out of the race. Democrats could have reminded voters that one reason they hiked taxes was to protect city schools from teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes and program reductions. In doing so, they could have tried, at least, to frame the debate and make the election a referendum on protecting city schools from Republican spending cuts. That strategy may have gotten more parents to the polls and caused others to think twice before filling in Republican ovals in hopes of tax relief.
Instead, the Democrats let the Republicans frame the debate as only about high taxes.
Winning as a Republican in Norwich is difficult, but meeting the expectations they have set could prove even more difficult for the new GOP majorities on the council and school board. The candidates offered little in the way of specifics during the campaign. To lower taxes you must find ways to cut spending. That almost certainly means eliminating jobs, adversely impacting services and schools.
“I look forward to their suggestions,” said Hinchey. “I do think it is difficult. There are fixed expenses. But he (Nystrom) understands the complexities, he sat in this seat.”
Nystrom is itching for a rematch with Hinchey in November 2017. With his council seat as a platform, Nystrom can begin making the case against Hinchey. The mayor, who runs the council meetings, said she would not let them become politicized.
“I feel very strongly that at City Council meetings professional and ethical behavior is paramount to what we are doing. I do not tolerate grandstanding,” she said.
It should be interesting.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.