VIDEO: Preston first selectman candidates debate issues in front of full house
Preston — The two first selectman candidates fielded questions about the difficulties in passing town budgets, the cleanup and potential development of the former Norwich Hospital property and their qualifications to take the seat being vacated by 24-year incumbent Robert Congdon.
Democrat Sandra Allyn-Gauthier and Republican Gregory S. Moran Sr. are vying for the chief elected officer position on Nov. 5. About 200 people packed the Preston Plains Middle School gymnasium for the debate, sponsored by The Day and the League of Women Voters and moderated by Day Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere.
Allyn-Gauthier touted her 25-year career as a financial advisor at People’s United Bank, experience with strategic planning and management, business administration and investment licenses. She said she has prepared for the position over the past year by attending numerous town agency meetings, as well as workshops hosted by the Connecticut Council of Municipalities.
She said she would create a strategic plan that could prepare the town for the potential big changes with development of the former Norwich Hospital property, the recent need to hire paid part-time firefighters due to lack of volunteers and the potential need to boost police coverage in town. That plan also could incorporate other issues raised by residents in questions posed during the debate, including any future plans for the vacant former Poquetanuck School parcel and perhaps the need for a new town hall.
“I am ready to serve and lead this town,” Allyn-Gauthier said.
Moran, a lifetime member of the Poquetanuck Fire Department, said he has been active in town government and civic activities, including youth sports coaching, scouting and as an auxiliary member of the VFW. With his experience working with his family business, Moran Service Center, he said he could continue in the dual role of public works director.
“My three main goals as first selectman are public safety, fiscal responsibility and restoring confidence and trust in the town of Preston,” Moran said.
Moran said he would meet with the Public Safety Advisory Committee to discuss police coverage. He supports the current two resident state trooper arrangement but said it would be “totally up to the townspeople” whether to contract with another town for police coverage or keep the resident troopers.
Allyn-Gauthier, a member of the Board of Finance, said residents at town meetings have expressed strong support for the two resident state troopers, which cost about $400,000 a year. She said there is a concern about potentially providing 24-hour service. Contracting with Ledyard or Norwich could cost about $650,000, including startup costs.
She, too, would work with the townspeople on the issue to gauge whether there is support for the enhanced service and cost. Both candidates said revenues from future development at the former Norwich Hospital property could help fund enhanced police, fire coverage and other town infrastructure costs.
The candidates were asked repeatedly to address the lingering cleanup and potential town-changing development at the former Norwich Hospital. The town is seeking an additional $2 million grant to finish the cleanup before turning over ownership to Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment for possible major development.
Allyn-Gauthier said it’s critical for the state, the tribe and the town to negotiate to get the final cleanup done. She said her strategic initiative and corporate experience would help in those negotiations. She said the Preston Redevelopment Agency has done a good job obtaining $24 million to date in grants and loans for the cleanup.
“There are 393 acres of prime real estate, and I think it would be a shame to let it fall through at this point in time,” Allyn -Gauthier said. “We all have to partner together. We’re definitely in a better place than where we were at in the beginning of it, because previously we had a lot of contamination and dilapidated buildings.”
Moran also said the PRA has done “a great job” with it, and he would be talking with the agency on how to go forward to make the property an asset for the town.
As for developing the former property, Allyn-Gauthier pointed out the sales agreement would guarantee the town at least $11 million if the Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment falls short of developing $200 million in value on the property, and the town needs to make sure the property transfer comes to fruition to start that activity.
Moran said he would leave it to the PRA to review proposed developments on the hospital property and he would back the agency's decisions. He said he has nothing against the tribe’s conceptual plan for a collection of recreational, sports, resort and entertainment development on the property. He again said he would trust the PRA to review and advance the proposed development.
Allyn-Gauthier said the tribe has done a good job in maintaining traffic flow and with infrastructure in its current developments, and the town would have to continue to be “a strong partner” to make sure there are no negative impacts.
“I think the positives outweigh the negatives, and just like anything, if there are negatives, we address them as they come so mole hills don’t turn into mountains,” Allyn-Gauthier said of the potential hospital development.
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