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Eighteen candidates vying for nine spots on Groton Town Council

Groton — Eighteen candidates are vying for nine spots on the Town Council in a race where the candidates named economic development, fiscal responsibility, environmental sustainability, and preparing for Groton's growth as among the top issues.

The Democratic slate features eight incumbents — Portia Bordelon, Aundré Bumgardner, Rachael Franco, Patrice Granatosky, Conrad F. Heede, Lian Obrey, Juliette Parker, and Joe Zeppieri — as well as Juan Melendez, who is seeking his first term on the Council. Democrat Rita Schmidt is not seeking reelection. 

Republicans also are running a full slate of candidates: Republicans Bruce Flax, Chase Foster, Lauren Gauthier, John Goodrich, Eric Ossmann, Ken Richards and Jenn White, as well as independents David Preka and Angela McGuirk.

Councilor Bordelon, 39, a medical assistant at a surgical center who was appointed to fill a council vacancy last month and served on the Representative Town Meeting, said a councilor’s most important function is to "serve as an open honest broker of information and a frank facilitator of civil conversation in town” and “to engage with the public as a representative of the constituents.”

She supports education; ensuring all citizens in both the city and the town are fairly represented by their local officials; and creating dependable, sustainable, community-rooted and environmentally responsible economic growth.

To promote such growth she favors public-private partnerships; bringing conservation groups and commercial entities to the same table; repurposing old properties; and looking at hiring someone in the public works department with both an engineering and an environmental background to serve the long-term needs of the coastal community.

"I would like to see more of a proactive versus a reactive approach," she said.

Councilor Bumgardner, 25, a former state representative for the 41st District who also serves on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, works as an aide to the state treasurer. His top priorities are growing the town's tax base, improving environmental quality in town and investing in transportation infrastructure.

He said developing the town's closed school properties and placing them on the tax rolls is important, particularly as the town has to pay the debt service associated with new school building projects.

Groton would benefit from mixed-use development to entice young people who work in Groton to live here, along with transportation infrastructure, including ensuring sidewalks are safe for pedestrians and bicyclists can safely bike around town, said Bumgardner, noting the council’s support of the Thomas Road bike lanes.

Renewable energy, improving stormwater runoff infrastructure, and working with federal and state partners to identify coastal resiliency projects are also his priorities.

Flax, 55, who works as Foxwoods' director of entertainment, marketing and ticketing and is on the executive board of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, was on the council for 9 years, including two years as mayor.

He said he wants to look at reducing spending and continue economic development by bringing in new businesses while not losing sight of helping existing businesses as well. He said it's important to ensure the town's economic and development team has the support they need to continue to market the town, while also balancing that by paying close attention to people and neighbors and how development would affect them.

He said his goal is to find cost savings and synergies, without eliminating any departments or political subdivisions such as the city and Groton Long Point.

Foster, 33, is an engineer, who while living in Tallahassee, Florida was selected there to be part of the Knight Creative Communities Institute, a group of volunteers who served as catalysts to improve the community.

"I'm really running on the core foundation of being fiscally responsible, ensuring the pensions are fully funded and we have a rainy day fund that's ready for anything that comes our way and keeping taxes low to keep people wanting to live there and attract new businesses to the area," he said.

For example, he said when town employees retire or move on to other jobs, the town should analyze whether or not the role is still needed or could be shared among other people.

He also said the town could do a better job of providing its constituents with information, for example by updating its website or instituting a newsletter.

Councilor Franco, 50, a business manager who chairs the Groton Beautification Committee, said it's important to continue to address the town's empty schools.

She said economic development is also a priority. The town has implemented Tax Increment Financing districts in areas of the town and the city, and she'd like to offer more incentives and have the town's economic development team continue to market the area.

She said planning for Groton's future growth is important, with new workers and people expected as Electric Boat expands, the town builds three new schools, new housing is coming to town, and development is slated for the Mystic Education Center.

"We have to plan the right housing to be able to accommodate this and be sure our schools are prepared as well as our emergency services," she said.

The plastic reduction ordinance and preparing for the changing climate are other priorities.

Gauthier, 23, a special projects manager for an oyster company, who coaches Special Olympics, said she supports long-term planning for the town.

She said the town council has increased spending and “artificially” lowered the tax rate for this year by taking money out of the unassigned fund balance. She said her first priority would be to figure out how to hold the line on taxes and get the town on solid financial footing, while incorporating a longer-term strategy to pay down some of the town's bond obligations and strengthen its reserves.

She said civic engagement is another top priority. She'd like the town to have a long-term strategy to capture the economic growth from Electric Boat.

"How do we create an identity that draws people here that makes them stay?" she said, with one idea being to create a town green or community garden.

Goodrich, 45, who works for Girard Toyota and owns an automotive consulting business, said his top priority is to be accessible to residents.

He also wants to bring vibrancy back to the town, grow the grand list and stop property taxes from rising. Goodrich, who grew up in Groton, said his father raised a family and put his children through college on a machinist's salary. He wants to bring to Groton again more of those types of businesses that offer better paying jobs.

He said the Council needs to work with its economic development department to make it attractive for people to start and maintain businesses, turn Route 12 into a destination, make the town more business friendly, and have a tax rate that makes it attractive to stay here.

"I just want to help get the town back to the thriving place it once was," said Goodrich.

Town Mayor Granatosky, 57, a teacher who has served on the RTM and Charter Revision Commission, wants to continue working on resilience and sustainability, noting the council started the Resilience and Sustainability Task Force.

"I want to keep focusing on the smart growth and redeveloping properties," she added, mentioning the planned redevelopment of the Groton Heights School, as well as a partnership among the town, state and a developer for the Mystic Education Center.

She said those projects, the TIF districts, and tax stability show the town is willing to work with businesses, which will be a draw. She wants to look for ways to attract new businesses to diversify the economy. Other priorities include continuing to keep taxes stable, creating a more walkable community and supporting education, including the Groton 2020 plan.

Responding to criticism from members of the Republican slate, she said the Council has more than doubled the Rainy Day Fund and is keeping it at a healthy level to prepare for future town needs and in anticipation that the school district will lose its Alliance District funding in the future. 

Councilor Heede, 48, Democratic Town Committee Chairman and former city councilor, works as an area director of revenue management for Hersha Hospitality. He said he wants to focus on fiscal stability, stable taxes and economic growth, as well as addressing climate change and coastal resiliency and opportunities for recreation and open space.

Top priorities include creating economic growth balanced with environmental needs and working with Electric Boat, the Navy, state representatives and neighboring towns to move Groton in a positive direction. He said Groton has a lot of opportunity to drive new economic development due to the growth at EB, including helping small businesses grow and engaging new businesses.

"I'd like to create great neighborhoods within Groton where you can live, work and play," he added. Goals include enhancing trail systems and sidewalks so people have more options to get around town.

McGuirk, 38, an Army veteran who works at Pfizer and served on the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce Executive Board, said she would like to increase the transparency of local government and how the public participates and make information more readily available to people. She would also like to increase economic development.

"We need to entice builders to build here and find the right types of developments to spur economic growth as well as minimize spending and make sure we're spending smartly," she said.

She said with EB getting ready to hire more people, ThayerMahan expanding, and the presence of Pfizer in the community, the town is faced with questions of how to make Groton a place where those workers want to live. She said she wants to increase public input to get those answers.

Melendez, 28, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway and RTM member who served on the Water Pollution Control Authority, said his top priorities from listening to residents are taxes, schools and public safety.

He said the Town Council's top priority is to ensure Groton is the best value in the area, so it can attract new residents coming to work here and thereby raise everyone's property values. He said it's important to develop the town, for example at the intersection at 184 and 117, fill empty storefronts and find the best developers for its unused school properties to grow the grant list and keep taxes low.

"But that's only half the equation, it's the Council's obligation to pass a lean budget, ensuring every penny is spent in the most efficient way possible," he added.

He also supported more opportunities, such as National Night Out, to introduce the police department to residents and a single-use plastic ban.

Councilor Obrey, 77, a real estate broker with RE/MAX who served on the RTM and Economic Development Commission, said economic development is a top priority. She said the council has budgeted money for economic development and planning, which is vital to the growth of Groton. She pointed to the economic development team introducing ThayerMahan to the Groton Heights School, which will develop tax revenue, as a example of the type of projects the town should continue to seek. 

"I want to build the tax base so we don't have to raise taxes in Groton," Obrey said. "I want to make sure the tax dollars are spent wisely."

She also said she wants to continue the council's work of going through the budget line by line, improving the downtown area with the TIF district in place, and maintaining the relationship between the town and the Navy base, which she called "vitally important."

Ossmann, 41, an IT Coordinator for Essex Savings Bank, said fiscal responsibility and putting "people over politics" are top priorities. He said he wants the Council to take a position against tolls as they would affect the town, especially with people going to Groton for Electric Boat, Pfizer and surrounding businesses, and would clog back roads and put wear and tear on them.

He said the town needs to think about the future of Groton, economic stability and offering more business incentives. He said Thames Street is a perfect example of a part of town that has the potential of being a really nice area for more businesses.

"I think we really need to look at businesses coming into Groton and giving them some kind of incentive of doing business in Groton," Ossmann said, "and when we have a good strong business economy that in turn lowers taxes."

Councilor Parker, 46, who previously served on the RTM, works as an administrative assistant in the City of Groton Police Department.

With times being hard for families and everybody, her top priority is to work to find the best way of maintaining the quality of life in Groton, she said.

Parker said the town needs to be fiscally prudent, as everyone pays taxes and it can hit home harder for some more than others, and at least maintain the current tax rate.

"I know times are changing but I just want everybody to have a chance to grow and raise a family here in Groton," she said. "It's a great community to live in. I grew up here."

Parker also said it's important to maintain services, including public safety, taking care of roads as best as the town can, and libraries, which help people from those needing access to job resume skills, to students looking up information.

Preka, 37, owns Advanced Group LLC, a builder/general contractor company based in Mystic.

"The town needs to look at the broader picture by looking at what we can do better for the future, rather than looking at the political side of view, and if we all work together, I think we can achieve it," Preka said.

His priorities are not increasing taxes; bringing new businesses to Groton to maintain and increase tax revenue for the town; and improving infrastructure, including roads, walking and bicycle paths, bridges and signage. He said it’s important to develop housing, particularly the type that millennials like, to attract more people to come to live within the town — and thereby attracting developers willing to invest in the community.

Preka said the town has to show the willingness to work with developers and express that Groton is a great place to invest with plenty of opportunities.

A complaint has been filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission that alleges Preka lives in Waterford. Preka said in response that he feels it was "a partisan attack" and is working to resolve it. 

Republican Town Committee Chairman Richards, 36, is an Emergency Medical Services administrator, said he was bothered by the council applying $1,095,000 from the fund balance to the budget.

"I think we have to go through line by line and make cuts no matter how hard they are to balance the budget," he said, adding that there's only so much residents can be taxed before they move out.

He said he'd like to work more with businesses to get a sustainable grand list, reduce or eliminate some permitting fees, and expand Tax Increment Financing to encourage business growth throughout the town.

Richards, who ran for state representative last year, said the town also needs to work with its state senator and state representatives to ensure appropriate state funding, particularly since it's only a matter of time before the state shifts teacher pension costs on to the town.

White, 47, works in finance and served on the Charter Revision Commission. She said she wants to bring in other businesses to Groton to diversify its revenue stream so the town isn't relying on residents for increasing tax revenue. She said her vision is to bring a mixed retail space development to Groton, similar to West Hartford's "Blue Back Square."

As Electric Boat is hiring, she said it’s important to make Groton the place of choice for young and upcoming families to live. Other nearby communities are getting big-box stores, and while that may not necessarily be the answer for Groton, if the community doesn’t offer what other towns do, they won’t look at Groton.

“There’s a lot of opportunities,” she said. “We need to have a vision for Groton.”

Other priorities include making it easier for businesses to apply and get approved in Groton and creating more space for recreation.

Councilor Zeppieri, 75, who previously served on the Groton City Zoning Board of Appeals, is a lawyer and retired hand surgeon and orthopedic surgeon.

He said he'd love for the town to preserve the former Noank School property as an open park.

He'd also like the Council to explore a proposal that seniors and people who are permanently disabled should not have to pay more than 15 percent of their net income on property taxes, so they can remain in their homes.

Zeppieri, who noted this year's flat tax rate, also said he promotes an attitude that while the town must support the high-level services it provides, including excellent schools and police services, it should be mindful of the taxpayer and not spend unnecessarily on frivolous items. He said he would like to see a statement at the beginning of every presentation of how an initiative will affect the tax rate.

k.drelich@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects and clarifies Councilor Bumgardner's comments on safety for cyclists and coastal resiliency projects.

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